Recognition at work is the Swiss Army Knife of management, says Jean-Pierre Brun,1 an expert in quality of life and organizational efficiency. A retired management professor and consultant, he first became interested in mental health in the workplace while performing interventions in a wide variety of workplaces and job classes.

Over time, Jean-Pierre Brun discovered that a lack of recognition was a common denominator for mental health problems at work. Today, he believes it is high time we broaden the concept of workplace recognition and give it the importance it deserves.

Beyond results 

Jean-Pierre Brun

Despite many studies demonstrating the importance of recognition at work, the concept has yet to be regularly practiced. A 2011 Québec study2 revealed that 42% of respondents felt they received little recognition. A French study3 found that poor recognition was the primary factor for low motivation in the workplace, even more than wages.

Furthermore, explains Jean-Pierre Brun, in our performance-oriented societies, organizations tend to only recognize results. By doing so they detract from the other dimensions of work to which workers contribute.

Luc Bouchard4 agrees: “Too much importance is placed on the achievement of performance targets, while workers don’t always have a direct influence on them. In education, for example, the academic success rate does not depend only on the teacher, especially if one takes into account the fact that students arrive with very different backgrounds.”

As a result, teachers must spend more and more time dealing with situations unrelated to teaching, such as behavioural problems. “They are told that their work doesn’t measure up to targets on which they have no direct influence. They feel helpless in the face of this. In addition, every year, targets are increased while the resources and the means to reach them are decreased,” says Luc Bouchard.

Clearly, the performance criteria do not take the reality of various situations into account.

Impact on personnel

Several studies have shown that a lack of recognition has significant repercussions on mental and physical health. According to Jean-Pierre Brun, workers who experience a lack of recognition at work are 1.4 times more likely to be absent and feel stressed, and 30% more likely to develop heart disease.

A 2008 study5 conducted in four different companies also found that a lack of recognition consistently ranks among the top four risk factors associated with distress.

Impacts for the company

Recognition weighs much heavier in the balance than employers realize. “There is an impact on motivation and commitment. If I don’t feel recognized, I’ll be less committed to my boss and the organization, and I’ll put less effort into my work. Innovation and creativity are also affected. When good ideas aren’t recognized, why bother coming up with others? It’s demotivating for employees,” says Jean-Pierre Brun. Furthermore, there is the added effect on employee retention, which is a major problem in the current context of labour shortage.

Four forms of recognition

Jean-Pierre Brun believes that a culture change must take place within companies in order to broaden the concept of recognition at work, which he breaks down into four forms:

  • Personal recognition (existential), which puts the individual rather than the employee at the forefront
  • Recognition of work practice, which relates to the quality of the work accomplished
  • Recognition of results, according to objectives achieved
  • Recognition of effort, unrelated to results

“To get results, we need to recognize the effort, not the other way around,” says the expert. He uses hockey as an example. During hockey games, the crowd only applauds when there is a goal, while the players deserve to be recognized for their full efforts.

Quality recognition

Jean-Pierre Brun applies three criteria to define quality recognition.

  • The first is authenticity. “This is essential,” said the expert. “Employees won’t be fooled. They know when there is a lack of sincerity.”
  • The second is proximity in time. “Recognition must be given immediately following or shortly after the event, otherwise it will lose its meaning,” he adds.
  • Finally, Jean-Pierre Brun insists on the importance of specificity: “What is being recognized must be specified. For example, you could congratulate an employee on an element of a presentation that was particularly good.”

“Instead of thankyous and cheers, which are easy and superficial gestures that become meaningless, the simple action of catching up with and asking how your employee is doing will be greatly appreciated”

– Jean-Pierre Brun

Small gestures that have a big impact

There is no need to make a big fuss or put an employee on a pedestal. “It is rather a question of paying attention to the small things and give consideration to individuals. Instead of thankyous and cheers, which are easy and superficial gestures that become meaningless, the simple action of catching up with and asking how your employee is doing will be greatly appreciated,” says Jean-Pierre Brun.

In his own team, Jean-Pierre Brun makes a point of being available to his employees. He has instituted a practice whereby he guarantees feedback in the near future if he cannot speak with them immediately, an approach that is much appreciated, he says.

What do employees want?

When asked what they want in terms of recognition, the first and most common answer is surprisingly simple: “Above all, they want to be given the tools and resources to do their jobs,” says Jean-Pierre Brun. “This is fundamental as it acknowledges their value as people who contribute to the achievement of results.”

The second answer is that managers be more present. This would facilitate exchanges about work and current problems, and would make it possible to obtain support to overcome challenges and complex situations.

Jean-Pierre Brun also stresses the importance of providing training to managers, who may be experts in their fields, but not always in personnel management. In addition, as they are faced with a heavy workload and high performance criteria, contact with the people around them can be more difficult.

Improving recognition

Workers should think about what is important to them in terms of recognition and talk to their employers about it, being as specific as possible. According to Jean-Pierre Brun, organizations would unequivocally benefit from it!

1 Jean-Pierre Brun founded the Chair in Occupational Health and Safety Management at Université Laval, which he directed for nearly 20 years. He is the author of Le pouvoir de la reconnaissance au travail : 30 fiches pratiques pour allier santé, motivation et performance.
2 VÉZINA, Michel, et autres (2011). Enquête québécoise sur les conditions de travail, d’emploi et de santé et de sécurité du travail (EQCOTESST), [Online], Montréal, Institut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité du travail, 986 p. [].
3 EDENRED, et IPSOS (2011). Baromètre Edenred Ipsos : motivation et bien-être des salariés français, Édition 2011.
4 Luc Bouchard is an Occupational Health and Safety Advisor at the CSQ.
5 BIRON, Caroline, Hans IVERS and Jean-Pierre BRUN (2016). “Capturing the Active Ingredients of Multicomponent Participatory Organizational Stress Interventions Using an Adapted Study Design,” Stress & Health, vol. 32, no. 4 (August), pgs. 275-284.