With Thanksgiving and the other holidays approaching, our schedules are filling up with events and errands and any number of obligations we place on ourselves to accomplish. It’s a harried time with little opportunity to stop and reflect. But the nature of the holidays also invites such reflection. The whole notion of Thanksgiving is to recognize the gifts we already have and all we have to be grateful for. The end of the year inspires us to reflect on the past year and consider the next — what we would change, what we would improve, what we aspire to.
As public employers, we also can use this time to reflect on what our offices and departments have accomplished and express gratitude to our employees.
Our employees are doing challenging work, every day, whether that’s working outside in the elements to lay asphalt for road maintenance, advocating through social service agencies for disadvantaged or mentally ill members of our communities or putting their own safety at risk to respond to emergencies. Though we may be expressing our appreciation after completing particularly big projects or busy seasons, an expression of gratitude at the end of the year can show how even the day-to-day work, the small tasks, add up to a large accomplishment.
How might we genuinely show gratitude to our employees? In the private sector, employees might anticipate bonus checks at the end of the year. Of course, that’s not really an option in the public sector as public entities are generally prohibited from providing “gifts” to individuals without adequate consideration. Since we already receive compensation for our work, any additional compensation would be likely to violate those prohibitions. Those of us in the public sector have to get creative.
Floating holiday — Paid time off may be the next best thing to financial compensation. Your county could consider implementing a floating holiday to be used in December so that employees could take an extra day for a holiday vacation, to spend some time with the kids while they are off of school, or to take a break from the rush of the season.
Breakfast in the office — It’s small but bringing in coffee and bagels or donuts is a change of pace from the standard potluck lunches or similar events. The breakfast could even be set up in a separate conference room or somewhere else out of the office to encourage staff to take a real break from work.
Thank you notes — Crafting a handwritten note of thanks to recognize our employees’ efforts can really speak to them and show them that what they do has real meaning.
Gratitude is not just about the person receiving it. Rather, giving gratitude and expressing appreciation for someone or something can be immensely valuable for the person expressing it. A study described in Harvard Health Publishing found that practicing daily gratitude increased optimism and positive feelings of the study participants. The results further showed the study participants who practiced daily gratitude “exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those focused on sources of aggravation.” While you are appreciating your staff, you can also engender a culture of gratitude in your office:
Add appreciation to the next office party — The party, whether it’s held during work hours or “off campus” in the evening, is a good chance for your employees to relax and get to know each other better. But add a gratitude twist: Have everyone take a turn describing how another person in the office has supported them or helped them perform their best work. Having the employees make these statements in a group setting also allows the recipient of the comments to feel that they are getting the support and appreciation of the entire office.
Secret Santa — Just like the traditional Secret Santa game in which each employee draws the name of another to give a small gift to. But along with the gift, the Santa writes a personal note to say thank you to the recipient.
Service project — Plan a service project that the entire staff or small groups of staff can engage in. Maybe employees could volunteer together for a shift at a food bank, clean up a local trail, or run a water table at a charity race. If your county offers paid volunteer time-off, they could even find volunteer opportunities during work hours.
Gratitude project — Take what researchers have been finding about the benefits of gratitude and recruit volunteers to embark on a gratitude experiment for the office. Have them take some time each day to write down three things they are grateful for, big or small. After a few weeks, the volunteers can get together, discuss what insights they had by noting these things each day, and discuss how they could apply those insights to better develop a mindset of gratitude within and among the rest of the office.
Whatever you might choose to do, the best effect of gratitude comes when the expression is genuine. Tokens given out without intention or personal thought are just tokens. Our employees do great work and appreciating them and reminding them of how their efforts and contributions fit into the larger mission and vision of public service can benefit them and the rest of the office in more ways than we may be able to see. The more we practice expressing gratitude, the more we feel it. With that in mind, we would like to thank you for your support of this column and wish you happy holidays!