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Expressions of gratitude in the workplace not only strengthen relationships between co-workers but can also improve stress responses to high-pressure tasks as well as impacting long-term health, according to a recent study from University of California San Diego’s Rady School of Management.

The study found that teammates who thanked each other before performing a high-stress task had a better cardiovascular response compared to teams who did not express gratitude. This response leads to increased concentration and more confidence, allowing individuals to give their peak performance.

“Our results have meaningful implications for organizations and particularly for employees who work together under acutely stressful conditions to accomplish joint goals,” said Christopher Oveis, senior author of the study and associate professor of economics and strategy at the Rady School of Management.

For the study, 200 participants competed in a contest inspired by the TV show “Shark Tank.” The participants were UC San Diego students who were paired in teams with their suitemates to replicate relationships between workplace colleagues—individuals who spend a lot of time together but are not close on a personal level. The teams were given six minutes to come up with a pitch for creating and marketing a bicycle for students to ride on campus and another six minutes to pitch their product and its marketing plan before a panel of judges. The winning team was awarded $200.

“The experiment is designed to create a maximally stressful environment so we can gauge how gratitude shapes stress response during teamwork because most people spend a third or more of their daily lives at work,” said Oveis.

Electrodes were placed on each participant’s neck and torso to collect electrocardiography (ECG) and impedance cardiography (ICG) signals, and blood pressure was monitored through a cuff worn on each subject’s arm.

A select group of teams were randomly assigned to express gratitude and their biological responses were compared to teams who did not thank each other during the contest.

“In a high-stakes, motivated performance task, people can react in one of two ways at a biological level,” said Oveis. “Some people really rise to the challenge and have an efficient cardiovascular response known as a challenge response: The heart pumps out more blood, the vasculature dilates, blood gets to the periphery, oxygenated blood gets to the brain, and cognition fires on all cylinders. But other people don’t fare as well and instead have a threat response: The heart pumps out less blood, the vasculature constricts, blood flow to periphery is reduced, and performance goes down.”

The study found that just a single, one- or two-minute expression of gratitude from one teammate to another helped those teammates achieve more adaptive, performance-oriented biological challenge responses and helped to reduce or eliminate threat responses.

“Gratitude expressions within work environments may be key to managing our day-to-day stress responses as well as optimizing how we respond during high-pressure performance tasks,” said Oveis. “But at their core, gratitude expressions play a fundamental role in strengthening our relationships at work.”

Study: Gratitude Expressions Improve Teammates’ Cardiovascular Stress Responses