The Surprising Benefits of Rituals in Life and at Work to Boost our Well-Being

The power of rituals is as profound as it is under appreciated. Mainly because we live in a time-starved culture where rituals are seen as a waste of time. And yet, they improve our well-being by providing an element of predictability in the face of an uncertain future.

Rituals come in many forms and play an important role in human societies. Whether it's a festive practice to celebrate religious customs, or a major milestone in our lives such as a graduation, a wedding or a birthday, these rituals are an integral part of life. They offer us a break from the hustle and bustle of daily life; for a brief moment, we all come together for a special event. A ritual is a marker of recognition, appreciation, and connection.

Highly productive people have developed predictable rituals in key areas of their life and work. Over time, they have learned that the messiness of creative work requires a supportive structure, or else chaos will ensue. For example, creating some structure at the start of your day immediately sends a signal to your brain that it's time to get going. This helps demarcate time, especially when so many of us live and work in the same space.

The inherent value of rituals in everyday life

Rituals are the routines we practice on a regular basis. A ritual is any practice or pattern of behavior regularly performed in a set manner. When you get ready for work, you brush your teeth, take a 20-minute walk, then take a shower. Before an important presentation, you might repeat a mantra to prepare yourself mentally. Every Friday night, at the end of a long work week, you get together with your spouse and kids for pizza and a movie.

There are benefits that come from the small routines we create for ourselves and others to relax, focus and infuse energy.

You can build a ritual around any repetitive task in your life. When you do that, you take the brainwork and effort out of routine tasks, allowing you to concentrate on more important things.

It takes a fair amount of intentionality to create a good ritual, but once you've done that, the sequence of actions will unfold automatically. You don’t have to think about it again. Instead, you’re free to devote your creative energy to other things.

For example, working out used to be a nightmare for me. Every time, I had to remind myself of the benefits of exercising, then convince myself to carve out the time to do it, when the moment was never right. Finally, exercising every other day has become a ritual and an ingrained routine that I wouldn't want to miss – and even look forward to. That's the time when I come up with the best ideas for my business projects, posts, and podcasts.

Revitalize the meaning of work by ritualizing group-bonding activities

In the workplace, rituals are especially important to corporate culture because they help everyone in the organization feel that sense of belonging. When leaders ritualize certain experiences, they reduce the likelihood that work will be perceived as a constant grind.

Whether it's the special way we onboard new employees, celebrate successes (milestones, promotions), recognize one another (birthdays, awards) or simply order lunch together on Wednesdays when everyone's in the office, rituals play an important role. These events become rituals because they can be counted on, are looked forward to and have become an indispensable element of group cohesion.

The emotional resonance of rituals is so powerful that it allows people to move beyond the transactional nature of their work, shifting the focus from ‘me’ to ‘we’.

A study conducted in 2022 by Harvard Business School revealed that ritualized group-bonding activities led employees to attach greater meaning to their work (+16%). These employees are more likely to ‘go the extra mile for the company’.

Why do workplace rituals matter?

The Harvard Business Review (HBR) outlines the 3 P's that constitute the main benefits of workplace rituals: psychological safety, purpose and performance.

·      Psychological safety: When everyone is engaged in workplace rituals, they feel empowered to voice their concerns, share new ideas and take ownership of challenging situations.

·      Purpose: Increasing the meaning people attach to their work helps them connect to a greater purpose – and to the company's purpose.

·      Performance: the natural outcome of psychological security and purpose is increased performance. Individual excellence leads to organizational excellence.

The critical importance of onboarding rituals

Leaders must create the conditions to ensure that employees feel a sense of belonging and connection right from the outset. Particularly in today's context, the onboarding process of young new recruits is of critical importance.

Remember that the vast majority of Generation Z members went from the last year or two of distance learning to their first job. This lifestyle does not prepare them to think ‘we’. Instead, it encourages them to think ‘me’. So we need to reboot – get these new employees to team up and show them why wearing a badge is important.

How does the persistence of the remote/hybrid model complicate the appeal of rituals?

Perhaps rituals were easier to organize in the days when everyone was still in the office engaging in face-to-face activities. In today's context, employees might perceive some of the events we organize remotely as ‘forced’ or ‘inauthentic’.

Imagine that, as a leader, you are intentional about introducing new rituals during this hybrid period – rituals that reinforce the sense of belonging. For example: ‘We’re having a Mindful Tuesday to reflect on our purpose and where we’re aligned.’ ‘We’re having a gratitude email chain’. These work perfectly well in hybrid mode as they engage us and connect us to each other.

What if the ritual you like is your employees’ big eye roll? If you’re getting 20%, 30%, 40% eye rolls, the question is: What can I do to better communicate a shared sense of purpose? What can I do to strengthen the sense of belonging? If the ritual doesn't impact the wider community, there's still work to be done – perhaps on the ritual, but perhaps also on the underlying connectivity, purpose and sense of belonging.

Rituals have to feel special to everybody, or you may have to admit that your culture may not be as monolithic as you thought. Sometimes it’s as simple as asking:  what is it that we do that both evokes fond memories and feels like it's ‘our own thing’?

What’s at stake when leaders neglect the role of rituals in the workplace?

Rituals are absolutely essential to establish and to manage because ‘Culture is happening whether you manage it or not’ (see post on corporate culture).

The absence of rituals not only weakens the link to purpose, it also weakens the link to the manager, and ultimately the ties across the organization. All three elements are essential to company performance, staff retention and employee well-being. We would lose them all.

There is also a risk that people will look outside the workplace to build rituals – which is great. But when personal rituals start to supplant office rituals, there's a risk that people will become more connected to life outside work, and that office relationships will become more transactional.

Final thoughts

The practice of rituals gives us structure and a sense of control over our lives, while offering an element of predictability in the face of an uncertain future. It allows our brains to rely on the regular and reliable nature of events, thereby protecting us from some of life's stress and anxieties.

Rituals help us to lay the foundations for what really matters to us and make it easier to connect with others.

Basically, rituals keep us grounded; they promote our satisfaction and well-being and therefore improve our productivity and performance.

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