Main content
Hero lines Hero lines

Morning moods make or break days

Positive or negative, the way you start your day affects your productivity

A bad mood in the morning can cloud your whole day, affecting your frame of mind and your productivity at work, says Steffanie Wilk, a management and human resources expert at The Ohio State University.

Are there ways to start the day on a positive note? Can employers help? We talked with Wilk, who studies the workplace with University of Pennsylvania colleague Nancy Rothbard, about their research as well as Wilk’s personal approach to getting the day off to a good start.

What led you to study mood in the workplace?

We would be in the centers in the morning and watch people racing in, literally, putting headsets on and typing their codes into their terminals while coats and purses or bags are still on their shoulders. You could tell by their flustered looks that they weren’t starting the day in the right place.

We thought the idea of affect being a prime for the day — either you start the day with rose-colored glasses or you start the day with gray glasses — might be really interesting to study.

What has your research shown?

We found that whatever affect, or mood, call center employees start their day with shapes the way they see their callers.

It’s not that the content of the calls themselves is affecting employees’ moods — the calls are randomly distributed, so it’s not like all the negative calls are going to any one person — it’s that they’re perceiving calls based on how they start their day affectively.

If you start your day in a positive mood, it creates an ongoing cycle of positivity. But, if you start your day in a negative mood, you can definitely get into a negative cycle.

Think about one of your worst days, where it just started in a funk. It can be very hard to get out of that funk.

And that funk, as your research shows, means 10 percent less productivity on the job. What can employers do to help employees be in a good mood?

Employers can’t change traffic or whether your kids have a fit because they don’t want to wear the clothes you put out for them, but employers can encourage you to shake off negativity through what they ask you to do at the beginning of the day or by giving you the flexibility to do something that resets your mood.

We know that asking people to do something that’s self-affirming can work. Start your day with a task that makes you feel good, something that you feel confident about. Maybe even sit down and write out things that you’re grateful for. Something that’s positive can switch your mindset around.

Employers can also relax their tardiness policies. It causes people an enormous amount of stress if they’re one minute late and their manager is standing there saying, “I’m writing you up.”

Do you have recommendations for getting a day off to a good start?

Planning can help. Look through the traffic reports, figure out a better strategy with your kids in the morning.

When commuting, there are things we can do to get ourselves in a good place, like mentally listing the set of tasks we have to do and planning out our day, which allows us to start our day feeling like we’re in control, even if the traffic’s bad.

Personally, I always have an audio book in case I get stuck in really bad traffic. If it’s a really great book, I will plug it in and think: “I hope this is the longest traffic jam ever.”

If a driver’s being a real jerk, weaving in and out, I have a narrative that says, “This person has such a critical thing they have to get to. I hope they get there.”

I’m a tea drinker, so if I’ve had a rough morning, I ritualize getting myself a cup of tea. I sit down, take a few deep breaths and have some tea before I start anything, before I open my door to people or read email. Sometimes I will lay out the three things I really want to get done that day and ask myself, what do I feel most capable of doing?

Once you get into a cycle of accomplishment — “Oh wow! I accomplished that and I did it in a shorter time than I thought” — then you start to feel even better. Just being in tune with your emotional state, creating an awareness of your mood, can help you reset it too.

If you’ve lost a day to a bad mood, is there a way to make sure tomorrow is a better day?

When you leave work, do something to recharge yourself in a way that’s positive, particularly for jobs that are very draining, like medical and health professionals who are dealing with patients all the time, or any service work in which you’re constantly dealing with customers.

A lot of hours transpire between leaving work and coming back in the morning, and that’s an opportunity to reset.

What’s next for you in terms of researching workplace moods and productivity?

One of the things I’m working on now is how our peers affect us. How much of the stress or burnout of people in our social networks at work is draining to us?

For some types of people, it may not be draining — the opportunity to help someone when they’re down may make them feel good about themselves — but for others it can be very draining to have people always be lamenting, “Oh, I’m so burned out, I hate this job or I hate my boss.”

We’re doing research to try to understand how much individuals’ burnout or behaviors like tardiness or quitting might be related not only to their own stress, but the stress of those around them.