How teamwork affects wellbeing (and it's not all positive)

Written by
Zahira Jaser, assistant professor, University of Sussex

30 Nov 2019

30 Nov 2019 • by Zahira Jaser, assistant professor, University of Sussex

How can teamwork help and harm wellbeing? Dr Zahira Jaser provides insights.

In our modern knowledgesharing, innovation-craving organisations, teamwork practices – such as joint decision making, interdependence of tasks, and shared responsibilities for specific goals – are integral to meeting corporate objectives. Yet, as workers’ wellbeing comes under increasing scrutiny, it’s important to understand how teamwork’s increased demands link to job-induced anxiety and stress.

The paradox of teamwork

At the University of Sussex, by studying data from 4,311 British workers in 664 workplaces, Dr Chidiebere Ogbonnaya uncovered a riddle. While the study connected teamwork to a perceived increase in the level of work demands: the more employees felt their teammates relied on them, the more they felt they had insufficient time to do their work. This increased their job-related anxiety.

However, it linked teamwork to an increase in employees’ positive emotions towards organisation and jobs. So, the greater the presence of teamwork practices, the greater the attachment and commitment to organisation and job. This connection was at the root of enhanced organisational performance.

How could teamwork have both positive and negative outcomes for workers? And how might managers mitigate the negative aspects, while retaining the positive ones? Further investigations established a relationship between the level of emotional attachment to one’s job, and the perceived increased demand from teamwork: at a parity of teamwork pressure, those workers who felt more emotionally committed to their company and job reported feeling less overwhelmed by teamwork than others who were not as committed: it appears that higher levels of commitment improved engagement and helped some employees cope with the demands of working in teams.

Managing the paradox 

This means we can resolve this riddle if we draw on theories of mutual advantages in management practices. These tell us that by applying certain policies to develop people’s skills and improve their performance, benefits can be achieved for employers and employees. Employers gain competitive advantages, improved productivity and financial performance, while employees benefit from a higher-quality job, development opportunities and greater job satisfaction. Studies show that by encouraging the establishment of stronger, supportive, collaborative relationships, organisations can help their employees to achieve greater levels of production and satisfaction.

These practices have much to do with the capacity of managers to create cohesive teams, members of which emotionally and technically support each other. Those who invest time in ensuring people have a degree of autonomy, that team members look out for each other and that people are trained and have access to appropriate technologies, are more likely to create the conditions for teamwork that respects wellbeing.

Dr Zahira Jaser lectures in organisational behaviour and HR management at the University of Sussex.