The nuances of workplace happiness, and 10 tips to instil productive happiness at work.
Non, ruled a French court recently, happiness is not a duty. Employees cannot be forced to have fun at the office.
The case had been filed by an employee who was fired for refusing to participate in team-building party activities. The wider context is that in France there have been huge strikes over the government’s proposal to increase the retirement age from 62 to 64. Masses of French people evidently regard work as a burden, something to get done with as (relatively) early in life as possible.
The sentiment is not limited to France. The Great Resignation and Quite Quitting trends took root during the tail end of the Covid-19 pandemic. Many employees are resisting a return to the workplace. Even sectors at the forefront of innovation are not buzzing like they used to: ‘The era of happy tech workers is over’, is another recent media headline, undermining the fact that many tech companies have recently created a position called Chief Happiness Officer. What’s going on?
Simply, many people do not enjoy their jobs. They are not happy at work.
Before addressing how this situation could be improved, is it really all that important? Chief Happiness Officers aside, leaders of large companies might believe that the happiness of their workforce is secondary to its performance and productivity. After all, more than a few of the world’s leading companies insisted on an immediate return to the office when the Covid-19 restrictions were eased, while 27 of America’s top 50 public companies made profits during the pandemic partly by cutting over 100,000 jobs between them. And many owners of medium- or small-sized businesses must surely have short-term survival, and then stability, as their priority?
But here’s the thing: happiness is a high-performance superpower, according to new, large-scale research conducted in the U.S. Army by psychology and management academics Martin Seligman and Paul B. Lester. Initial happiness and well-being correlated significantly with the proportion of soldiers who subsequently earned awards for bravery, or army workers who were recognised for outstanding job performance.
The study is important because in earlier decades other academics pointed out the relatively weak correlation between happiness and productivity. Motivational speaker Shawn Achor, in his 2010 book The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles that Fuel Success and Performance at Work, hit upon snappy phrases that rang true, but were based on small samples or anecdotal evidence. “Most of us assume that success will lead to happiness, but in fact we have got it backwards,” he wrote.
Seligman and Lester, through their assessment of a huge database, have now added credibility to Achor’s idea. (They also explain, convincingly, why the research findings can be applied to the business world.) Their summarised conclusion, backed by strong statistical evidence, is that “not only do happiness and optimism matter to employee performance, but they matter a lot, and both predict how well employees will do.”
So, while employees may seek happiness at work because they realise they need to spend a significant part of their lives there, companies should consider workplace happiness as a catalyst for improved productivity and achievement. From the employer’s perspective, what should leaders and managers be doing? These are 5 elements of an organisation’s ecosystem that will set the scene:
- An enabling environment. Small but important things include a structured onboarding programme for new employees, and making available the right technology tools. Big aspects are how the company inspires a motivational purpose, and the values that thread through the way it works. The office environment in the TV series Love and Anarchy is a good example. The fictional publishing house, Lund & Lagerstedt, falls into near bankruptcy as no one quite knows the company’s main reason for being. Some think it is to promote quality literature; others to capitalise on popular media trends; the new CEO just wants to generate revenue any way she can. An undercurrent of anarchy prevails as everyone gets on with what they think they should be doing. But, aware that there is no direction, they aren’t happy.
- The trust factor. Multiple studies correlate high levels of trust within an organisation with happier and more productive employees. This makes practical sense. Trust allows colleagues to interact proactively and forthrightly, smoothing processes and improving teamwork. And employees respond positively when they believe they are trusted. Interestingly, Netflix’s policy on personal expenses is just five words: “Act in Netflix’s best interests.” Patty McCord, the company’s Chief Talent Officer for 15 years, writes in an article for Harvard Business Review that the expectation of responsible behaviour resulted in a high level of compliance with reasonable expense account spending. She says, though, with a touch of humour, that “We kept an eye on our IT guys, who were prone to buying a lot of gadgets.”
- Pay people what they are worth. Remuneration is important as part of a package of employee motivations. Being motivated is, in turn, key to workplace happiness. And financial stability is important in its own right. Remuneration can be a trick subject, but getting the balance right will pay happiness dividends.
- Personal growth contributes to well-being. One of the characteristic common to most of the world’s most admired companies is an understanding of the importance of talent – in particular, their emphasis on growing their people. Ensuring your company prioritises employees’ development will help enable their happiness at work.
- Lead with authenticity. The attitudes and behaviours of the leadership team have a direct influence on the level of contentment in the workplace. A positive employee experience doesn’t simply happen – it needs to be planned and nurtured. Responsibility for employee well-being starts with the C-Suite.
And when leaders discuss how they are prioritising workforce well-being, they must do so with authenticity, not as a way to shift attention from uncomfortable issues. Precisely because happiness can be interpreted ambiguously, punting positivity during difficult times may send the wrong message. Think carefully before appointing your own Chief Happiness Officer if salary freezes have just been announced or the company has recently laid off even one employee.
Taking personal responsibility
This last point is about being realistic in the face of challenges. It applies to us as individuals, too, in our quest for happiness at work.
Companies can, and should, enable this. Importantly, too, employees should take responsibility for their own well-being. How should we, as individuals, think about our happiness at work? Answering these 5 questions can help improve an employee’s level of happiness:
- What are your workplace happiness triggers? There is usually a trade-off between the various aspects of work involving purpose and passion, effort and long hours, interaction with other people, rewards, and personal growth. Rarely will anyone feel their job gives them everything, all the time! If you’re feeling unhappy at work, pinpoint the main reason. It could be relatively easy to resolve. For instance, if you feel in need of a new challenge you could request a transfer to a different division. Or, it could be unresolvable, such as if you no longer identify with the company’s values and feel uncomfortable with its culture. In this case your path to improved workplace happiness is to start the process of finding a new job.
- What are your career expectations? If you aspire to be a financial manager, you can reasonably expect your line manager to assist steering that career pathway within the organisation. But are you taking responsibility for furthering your relevant qualifications in alignment with your goals?
- Do you have the necessary capabilities, and are you building capacity? Workplace well-being includes having the skills to properly fulfil responsibilities – and more, because we should always be looking ahead.
- Does your mindset match your expectations? It’s important to grasp the need to grow in order to achieve your goals. Research by a leading authority in the study of happiness, University of California professor Sonia Lyubomirsky, indicates that our happiness is only 10% attributable to the circumstances of our lives. A far more important driver is our attitude, and the ‘intentional actions’ that flow from this attitude. It’s this that shapes our emotional intelligence (EQ) and determines our reaction to situations, including at work.
- Do you feel you belong? This is the acid test. The world has changed a lot in the decade since international research and polling company, Gallup, concluded that having a close friend at work is significantly correlated with engagement. The pandemic and the new work paradigms that have emerged from it mean that individual employees, especially younger generations, have shifted in their attitude to work. But if you answer this question affirmatively, the chances are that you are happy at work – at least relatively so.
It’s clear that being happy at work matters. For the employee, a sense of capability, and having prospects, are important for self-esteem; feeling that he or she belongs is important for overall well-being. Combined, these create a state of readiness to perform, and improve. For the company, the achievement of the organisation as a team depends on each individual’s contribution to performance – and this is tied to their well-being.
However, it probably isn’t possible for any workplace to be a happy place in the true sense of the word. A significant part of almost any career involves tiring levels of thinking, and requires a sometimes exhausting need to negotiate constantly with colleagues, superiors, and clients or customers.
Besides, happiness is a complex, multifaceted sentiment, with different meanings to different people. And some people may be uncomfortable displaying much emotion – happiness or others – at work. Managers at the French company that fired the employee for not attending party activities were probably confused, at least initially, about why he refused to participate. Maybe his idea of happiness was being at home, reading a book.
The bottom line is that work comes with stress and strain. So, what a quest for workplace happiness really means is thinking about how to create the organisation’s cultural balance, that humancentric sweet spot where people strive willingly with purpose, they deliver, and they feel appreciated and rewarded.
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DigitalCampus is part of the LRMG group, specialists in igniting the performance of people.
Senior Partner and Managing Executive
In partnership with Dave Gorin