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When a team is less than the sum of its parts: tensions between individual and team wellbeing

Individual wellbeing doesn’t always add up to team wellbeing – but reflection and open communication can help
Emma Nordback vasemmalla ja Niina Nurmi oikealla. Kuva: Oona Hilli, Aalto-yliopistoU
Emma Nordbäck (left) and Niina Nurmi (right). Photos: Oona Hilli.

New research highlights the conflict between the needs of a team and the needs of the individuals in the team – and what leaders can do to strike the right balance to keep things ticking smoothly. 

‘If a team focuses only on the wellbeing and needs of the team, the individuals in it may be at risk of burnout. And the same is true in reverse: if individuals only care about themselves, team wellbeing suffers,’ says Emma Nordbäck, Assistant Professor at Hanken School of Economics.

The study, which was published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, studied 69 people across 12 teams during COVID. Participants kept a qualitative diary, and the researchers also used questionnaires to measure individual work engagement and the risk of burnout, as well as team viability, team satisfaction, and the quality of interpersonal relationships among members.

‘Today’s work life, where disruptions cascade one after another, highlights the differences between what teams need and what individuals need. Many of the participants in our study prioritised their own needs without regard for the wellbeing of the team, bringing down team morale and commitment,’ says Assistant Professor Niina Nurmi of Aalto University. Other people prioritised the survival of their teams and put a lot of effort into that at the expense of their own well-being – which meant their risk of burnout increased.

‘Organisations do a lot of pulse surveys of employee wellbeing and measure individual engagement, but the wellbeing of a team isn’t just the sum of the wellbeing of the people in it. The danger is that the results of surveys measuring individual wellbeing may look really positive, but at the same time teams may no longer work at all,’ says Nurmi.

Emma_Nordback vasemmalla ja Niina Nurmi oikealla, kuva: Oona Hilli, Aalto-yliopisto.

Well-being through reflection

The responses also revealed that people's coping strategies often don’t actually contribute to their recovery. ‘People often don’t know what’s stressing them and what to do about it. For example, if a person is feeling lonely, running alone in the woods may not be the best solution. On the other hand, if your team is overcommunicating and you feel overwhelmed, the team should create some rules for communication to enable both connection and focus time,’ says Nordbäck.

According to the study, the teams that engaged in reflection were the ones that did best, both as individuals and as a team. Team members openly shared their experiences and concerns, and then the team and members adapted their practices to ensure everyone’s wellbeing. But these teams are in the minority, according to the study.

‘Working life is now very individual-oriented, which means that the team may be forgotten altogether. That has an impact on the viability of organisations for the long haul,’ Nordbäck continues. Team leaders should make sure that team members are communicating and making informed compromises with each other so that individual and team wellbeing both receive enough attention.

Along with Nordbäck and Nurmi, the research team also included Jennifer Gibbs (University of California), Maggie Boyraz (California State University), and Minna Logemann (City University of New York). ‘Relationships between people are one of our strongest motivators. We’re long-standing friends and meet as a research fivesome at a conference once a year. When we did research together, we always focused on the welfare issues first. It's always worth taking the time to reflect,’ Nurmi says.

Further information:

Assistant Professor Niina Nurmi, Aalto University, Tel. +358 50 577 1693, email: [email protected]

Assistant Professor Emma Nordbäck, Hanken School of Economics, Tel. +358 50 567 7528, email: [email protected]

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