Is There A Correlation Between Positive Childhood Experiences And Well-Being In The Workplace?

Is There A Correlation Between Positive Childhood Experiences And Well-Being In The Workplace?

On Friday, March 26, 2021, PACEs Connection (formerly ACEs Connection), as part of its A Better Normal series, hosted a webinar titled, PACEs and HOPE with Dr. Christina Bethell.

The conversation was designed to highlight the organization’s name change to Positive and Adverse Childhood Experiences (PACEs) and to highlight current research on the contribution of Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs) in the successful development of children.

In other words, we know a lot about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), but what do we really know about PCEs?

Turns out, we know both a lot and not enough.

As I listened to the insightful presentation (Dr. Bethell was also joined by Dr. Baraka Floyd and Dr. Robert Sege), I was reminded that the keys to reducing or mitigating ACEs are still the creation of a safe, stable, and nurturing environment and the building of strong relationships.

During the presentation, Dr. Bethell drew from her and Dr. Sege’s JAMA Pediatrics research paper, “Positive Childhood Experiences and Adult Mental and Relational Health in a Statewide Sample: Associations Across Adverse Childhood Experiences Level,” published in 2019.[i]

One interesting aspect of their research, and an aspect important for making the connection between a child’s childhood environment and an adult’s workplace environment, was the employing of seven questions respondents were asked to answer about their childhood.

Based on the answers, the researchers were able to create a PCE score. The respondents were asked “to report how often or how much as a child they:”[ii]

  1. felt able to talk to their family about feelings;
  2. felt their family stood by them during difficult times;
  3. enjoyed participating in community traditions;
  4. felt a sense of belonging in high school;
  5. felt supported by friends;
  6. had at least 2 non-parent adults who took genuine interest in them; and
  7. felt safe and protected by an adult in their home.

I agree. Those are indicators of a positive childhood! Let’s allow those seven questions to ruminate for a minute while we discuss employee well-being.

Employee well-being has been a favorite topic of researchers since at least the late 1990s. Employers have long been interested in what makes an employee happy (mainly because it equated to increased productivity), but also because unhappiness or stress has numerous negative mental and physical health effects.[iii]

So, what makes an employee happy? The short answer is good leadership.

Why do I say that? Well, you’ve heard the saying, “People don’t leave bad jobs, they leave bad managers,” right? Who then is responsible for the work environment if not the leader or manager?

In the November 22, 2019, Forbes article, “People Don’t Leave Bad Jobs, They Leave Bad Bosses: Here’s How To Be A Better Manager To Maintain And Motivate Your Team,” author Jack Kelly states:

"It's relativity common for managers to lose their tempers, harshly chastise or scream at a subordinate in front of other co-workers. The verbal beratement is humiliating, embarrassing and saps any interest or enthusiasm to work for that supervisor. It also alienates everyone else within earshot. They recognize that the boss has a short fuse and will freely take out his frustrations on his staff.No one wants to live with the constant fear that they’ll be his next victim. (italics added)."

"Constant criticism, sarcasm, degrading and cruel comments also ruin morale. When a manager routinely belittles your ideas, doesn’t hear you out, talks over you, and acts in an aggressive manner, it makes your work-life miserable and, overall, intolerable."[iv]

His actionable answers are what you typically find in leadership articles: “Share your style of management with your team; let your team know the goals and objectives; provide them with all of the tools they need to succeed and get out of their way; mean what you say and say what you mean; hold yourself to the highest standards; and reward people when they do a good job.”

He ends the article with, “This is a good start toward creating a positive work environment, which will make people want to stay and contribute. It’ll keep them from walking out the door.”

Allow me to summarize his article for you: Being a good leader (or manager) requires you to quit traumatizing people at work who grew up being traumatized at home, work to create a positive work experience by creating a safe, secure, and nurturing work environment, and build strong relationships with your team members.

Is that a fair summary? I have no idea if Mr. Kelly understands ACEs or PCEs. I also have no idea if he would agree with my summation.

I do know that simply saying “create a positive work environment” is going to have little meaning if people don’t really understand the impetus for why a positive work environment is critical.

I mean, really, with no disrespect, aren’t Mr. Kelly’s suggestions what we’ve always heard? Until we understand why a positive work environment is instrumental to employee success, we will never fully understand how to create a safe, stable, and nurturing (i.e., positive) environment.

So, is there a correlation between positive childhood experiences and well-being in the workplace? Absolutely.

Mr. Kelly’s example of the manager who harshly chastises, screams, berates, humiliates, criticizes, and degrades tracks well with the emotional abuse people experienced at home from abusive parents or guardians.

Using Dr. Bethell’s PCE score questions as a guide, think about what a positive work environment might look like if: 1) employees were able to trust others when expressing their feelings; 2) knew their supervisors supported them during difficult times; 3) enjoyed a company’s traditions; 4) felt a sense of purpose and loyalty to the company; 5) had a strong social network built on trust; 6) had a mentor or two who helped them succeed; and 7) felt safe to express their ideas and be creative.

It’s been said that positive leadership inspires followers and can have long-term results among followers “such as trust, commitment, and well-being.[v]

As leaders, we may not be able to provide adults with positive childhood experiences, but we can provide them with positive work experiences in a way that creates trust, commitment, and well-being among employees.

Let’s learn to build trust utilizing a trauma-informed approach to leadership.


[i]Christina Bethell, PhD, MBA, MPH; Jennifer Jones, MSW; Narangerel Gombojav, MD, PhD; Jeff Linkenbach, EdD; Robert Sege, MD, PhD (2019), “Positive Childhood Experiences and Adult Mental and Relational Health in a Statewide Sample: Associations Across Adverse Childhood Experiences Levels,”JAMA PediatricsE1-E10, Published online September 9, 2019, doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2019.3007.

[ii]Ibid., E3.

[iii]Jiayan Liu, Oi-Ling Siu, Kan Shi, “Transformational Leadership and Employee Well-Being: The Mediating Role of Trust in the Leader and Self-Efficacy,”Applied Psychology: An Internal Review, 2010,59(3), 454–479.

[iv]Jack Kelly, “People Don’t Leave Bad Jobs, They Leave Bad Bosses: Here’s How To Be A Better Manager To Maintain And Motivate Your Team,”Forbes22 November 2019, 2019/11/22/people-dont-leave-bad-jobs-they-leave-bad-bosses-heres-how-to-be-a-better-manager-to-maintain-and-motivate-your-team/?sh=3e57f3ff22b9.

[v] Jiayan Liu, et al.