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Michael Dickerson


What is the Spillover Effect?

Updated: Jan 3, 2020

For so long, organizations have swept under the rug the negative impact that a toxic workplace culture has on an employee’s well-being. As we know, a person spends about a third of their life at work. Having to work for an organization where the boss hurls explicit obscenities at employees for making a mistake is not uncommon. Some organizations maintain employee control by always communicating that there might be layoffs coming soon. Another organization’s culture is so sales driven that the workplace turns into a competition, and employees must win at any cost. Whether we like it or not, these things cause employees to have anxiety and depression and can even lead to substance use. The toxicity of these workplace cultures starts to affect every other part of a person’s life, and they are not able to maintain healthy relationships or be their optimal selves.

Role Conflict

In work/life research there is a strong emphasis on understanding the organizational influences on a person’s everyday life. The biggest issue for a work/life practitioner like myself is role conflict. People play many different roles in their lives: a father, mother, board leader, church minister, community organizer, sports coach, PTA member, husband, wife, life partner, volunteer leader, etc. Organizations have neglected the fact that they play the largest role in a person’s overall life because people spend such a large portion of their life at work. With that in mind, let’s examine the psychological and emotional impacts work can have on the other roles in people’s lives.

Think about the unfulfilled CFO whose work culture is toxic; he’s also a father who comes home from work angry and constantly snaps at his children. He disengages by drinking a 6-pack of beer every night to relax. Consider the 30-year career woman who loves to volunteer outside of work. She finally gets her dream job but discovers she has the boss from hell; her job is sucking the life out of her. She becomes depressed and has no desire to volunteer anymore. Finally, contemplate the single mom who feels like she can’t call into work to take care of her sick kid because she will get reprimanded and talked about by her co-workers; she knows they will think she is slacking off from working, and this perception has a negative impact on her emotionally. In addition, it affects her ability to be a good mom and take care of the child who needs her.

Spillover Effect

The spillover effect is defined as occurring “when attitudes in one role positively spill over into another role.” This is referring to the relationship between work and life and how one’s positive experience in one role can carry over into another role. The spillover effect showcases just how important it is that employees consistently experience a positive workplace. Because we spend so much time at work, experiencing a positive workplace can spill over into other areas of our lives and roles that we have outside of work. When the environment at work is healthy and positive, it contributes to the overall well-being and attitudes of each individual. People who are emotional healthy perform better at work, which leads to job satisfaction; when people feel they are doing well at their job, it will spill over and increase life satisfaction.

Imagine if the CFO felt fulfilled in his duties at work and experienced a positive workplace. His attitude would be much better, and it’s possible he would be more patient with his kids and find healthier alternatives for self-care. What if the career woman had a boss that utilized her strengths and gave her more autonomy in her new position, thereby increasing her emotional health and energy, leading her to give even more time to volunteer in her community? Envision what could happen if the single mom had a supportive team and organization which put an emphasis on flexibility and family. She could take care of her sick kid without feeling any guilt, and then she would become more loyal to the organization she works for.

Positive Organizational Development

What can organizations do to create a more positive workplace experience? We know that every industry and organization is different. I do not espouse to the one-size-fits-all mantra or best practices. What works for one organization might not work for another organization. I truly believe that now, and in the future, it will be about the employee experience and positive organizations. The best research and up-to-date information come from the University of Michigan Center for Positive Organizations. They are deeply entrenched in the tools and techniques in positive psychology and have some of the best researchers, professors and measurements on organizational development around.

To have the spillover effect happen in more organizations, we have to know what tools are effective and develop good work/life programs within these organizations. Employees want to work for positive organizations that will contribute to their overall well-being and will understand they have a life outside of work. Your organizations must understand that not only do they have a huge role to play in society, but they must also recognize exactly how they contribute to their employees’ well-being. While the idea of the spillover effect may be new to you and your organizations, the reality is it’s always been a relevant idea and will continue to shape the future of the workplace.

Michael Dickerson

Michael Dickerson is a work/life expert, Positive Psychology Practitioner, and host of The Spillover Effect Podcast. He utilizes positive psychology science and research to contribute to individuals, teams and organizations factors that can help employees achieve work/life integration. Michael believes is dealing with individuals as a whole person and enhancing the employee experience within organizations.

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