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Marcie Hopkins, U of U Health.
More Than One Way to Say Thanks: How the Danish Concept of Hygge Can Help in Winter and in Work
Rewarding staff might seem overwhelming amid all the responsibilities that come with being a leader. Yet, we know it has a significant effect on morale and retention. HR’s director of communication and recognition Christian Sherwood suggests a layered approach to show your appreciation that won’t necessarily hit your bottom line.

hat’s gray and cold and makes you feel like you’ll never see the light of springtime again? 

January. For me the whole month of January (and most of February) leaves me feeling a bit disconnected. And cold.   

I recently spoke with a fellow leader who felt this way, too. She worried she wasn’t being effective at finding meaningful ways to recognize and reward staff during a time of year that can be hard to stay motivated. We agreed that so often our attempts to recognize and reward employees can feel like being stuck out in the cold with few options and even fewer ideas.

Although her point wasn’t about winter weather, the solution to both our situations is the same: hygge.

How do you pronounce it?

Hygge, pronounced hoo-guh, (go for it and say it out loud right now: “hoo-guh”) is a Danish term for creating a cozy sense of well-being and comfort during the long, gray, cold winter months. The Danes have embraced their winters; thriving during the dark months is a passion. 

Hygge is a layered approach: A candle, or four or five; some fuzzy throw blankets; hot beverages in sturdy mugs; that movie that always make you feel better; cozy elements that create a warm ambiance. 

The magic is in the combination of these things. The same goes for recognizing and rewarding staff. It’s not the once-yearly recognition or reward; instead, it’s how you layer recognition and reward throughout the year.  

Here are a few ways you can use the principles of hygge to warm up your recognition efforts. 

Research backs up this layered approach to recognition

According to researchers at Harvard Business School, different reward types satisfy intrinsic psychological needs. In the same way the cozy layers of hygge create comfort from the cold, employees feel more appreciated when they have choices, feel they are good at their job, and are part of the group.  

People feel appreciated when they have:

  • Autonomy – choosing how to work and working on things that align with personal values 

  • Competence – having the right skills and receiving acknowledgement for expertise

  • Connection – having a sense of belonging, shared purpose and meaning 

When we carve out time and space to address these psychological needs, the better we are at creating our own methods to reward the unique people on our teams. 

There is more than one way to say “Good Job!”

As managers, we often feel like the only response to employee appreciation or recognition is cash. And while additional pay is good, there is mounting research that it is not the only way people feel appreciated.

Those same researchers from Harvard Business School found that while cash rewards matter, they aren’t the only thing that matters. They classify rewards into three categories:

  • Cash Rewards

  • Non-Cash Tangible Rewards (gift cards, company-sponsored training opportunities)

  • Intangible Rewards (schedule flexibility, choice of projects, staff meeting kudos, written notes, networking opportunities)

The impact of non-cash awards can be dramatic. They help develop an understanding of what is valued on your team. For example, giving high-performing staff members a choice on their next big project gives them autonomy. It also models for others how to earn that option.

Appreciation makes a difference

Take a moment to account for the types of rewards you can offer your team. It will be different for you than for other leaders, based on the work your team does. Also, take a moment to consider the psychological needs of your staff. It is possible to create a rewarding, non-cash experience that builds competencies and connectedness. But you are the key.

Ashley Whillans, from Harvard Business School, explains that managers can sometimes feel awkward or shy when showing gratitude to staff members. If this is familiar to you, take a moment to acknowledge what you’ll gain from more connected and appreciated staff members. 

Research suggests that when our needs of feeling connected, autonomous, and competent are met, employees respond with more creativity, increased collaboration and knowledge sharing, as well as better attendance.

Use data to create a little hygge at work

One place to start is the results of your engagement survey. It has good insights into what staff consider important and which areas you can do a little bit more. Your results are an indicator of feelings of connectedness and autonomy, and if there are areas for learning and training to increase the feelings of competency. 

In the same way we prepare for winter weather—even if it’s just with a coat—simple steps can make a lot of difference in recognizing your staff.

*Originally published January 2020


Christian Sherwood

Chief Human Resources Officer, University of Utah Health

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