What can science teach us about happiness at work?

Rose Bryant-Smith
October 9, 2019

Thinking about the emotional state of employees is not just ‘nice to have’, if you are seeking a productive, engaged and loyal workforce. Research proves that employee happiness is correlated with better goal achievement, performance and productivity. Inspired employees are twice as productive as satisfied employees, and three times more productive than dissatisfied employees (see research citations below).

We can learn much from the latest research about employee happiness, to apply in our workplaces today.

Who feels happiest at work?

The World Happiness Report published on the United Nations’ International Day of Happiness, and the Cantril Ladder published by Gallup since 2006, give us some guidance on which employees are likely to be happier than others.

In general, people working in blue-collar jobs report lower levels of overall happiness in every region around the world. People who categorise themselves as working in farming, forestry and fishing assess the quality of their lives as 4.5 out of 10 on average.

By comparison, people who categorise themselves as a manager, executive or professional report an average 6 out of 10 quality of life. White collar workers report feeling more positive emotions (joy, laughing) and less negative emotions (worry, anger, sadness). Those who are self-employed report a higher general assessment of their lives overall, at the same time as feeling more stress and worry!

Pay them more?

It is true that people in well-paying jobs are, on average, happier and more satisfied with their lives and their jobs. However, other non-monetary aspects of work are strongly predictive of happiness, and are far more important drivers than most people realise.

Significant research has shown that key drivers of people’s happiness and wellbeing at work include:

  • Social relationships and social capital (the support the person receives from their colleagues)
  • Daily structure with achievable goals
  • Job variety and learning new things
  • Feeling positively absorbed in the work
  • Commitment to advancing the employer’s interests (including connection to values)

It’s also vital to happiness that people’s commitments outside work are supported, through work-life balance initiatives and flexibility. Flexibility in how and when the person does their job (i.e. working hours) is correlated with greater satisfaction.

Further, people are happier if they feel able to bring their ‘whole self’ to work, if they can express what matters to them in a values sense, and if they don’t have to mask aspects of their true self such as being LGBTI or having parental responsibilities.

Isn’t it Ironic

There is a fundamental irony in seeking to be happy: making such efforts may not actually help. Instead of striving to achieve happiness as an outcome – something to be attained, like a possession – we should seek to cultivate skills which allow us to enjoy the good times and take the bad times in our stride.

Dr Vanessa Buote wrote that “one of the misconceptions about happiness is that happiness is being cheerful, joyous, and content all the time; always having a smile on your face. It’s not – being happy and leading rich lives is about taking the good with the bad, and learning how to reframe the bad”.

Instead of chasing happiness and oversimplifying it, we need to understand happiness as a ‘means’ not an ‘end’. It may sound clichéd, but the journey is where happiness dwells, not in an end goal. People feel most happy when they are enjoying the present moment, engaged in a meaningful project, and working toward higher goals – not when they are preoccupied in making themselves feel happy.

We can’t simply ‘make’ our employees be happy. However there is much that employers can do to help in creating the connection to values, learning opportunities, and team experiences which enable greater levels of happiness.

1. Autonomy

We all desire to be self-directed: to have some autonomy, control or influence over what we do and how we do it. People who have some
autonomy over how they run their days, and are also competent and connected to others, become motivated, productive and happy.

The good news is that your mindset – which you can choose, to at least some extent – makes a big difference in how you experience each day.

Experiencing autonomy at work might seem like a challenge, when you work for someone else and are subject to rules and regulations. Many industries are highly regulated, where risks are controlled and personal discretion is limited.

The sense of ‘determining’ your own work is found in how you approach each task. A key choice is whether you will be passive, allowing things to happen to you and grumbling about them, or you will take an active approach to how you experience every day. There is always a choice about the way you approach your work, even if there is limited choice about the work itself.

2. Mindfulness

Each day, do you choose to be present? We don’t mean just ‘showing up’ at the workplace. Being present means being aware of what is going on in us and around us; being centred and mindful. When you are mindful, you focus your awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting your own feelings.

The psychology of ‘flow’ has a lot to offer here. Prominent writer Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains in his excellent book ‘Flow‘ that we experience flow in those moments when the challenge we face is perfectly matched to our capabilities. Then our work ‘flows’ without much effort, as we are ‘in the zone’.

Essential to achieving flow is minimal distractions, being focused and present, clarity of understanding of the task and its good ‘fit’ with our skills. Interestingly, flow is more enjoyable in an interdependent group, such as a functioning work team, than working by yourself.

3. Communication

Research by the University of NSW and other leading international business schools recently found that there’s a high correlation in teams between high performance and communication abilities.

These teams can talk about challenges and opportunities, deal with conflict and disagree with respect. They welcome criticism and feedback as learning opportunities. Teams with these skills are more likely to be innovative and productive, and have happier customers!

This research is not really surprising. What these teams are doing is communicating honestly and bravely – respecting each other but not afraid to disagree and work together on problems, challenges and opportunities.

Organisations where employees are encouraged to have honest, deep communication and to disagree with each other, with respect, have been found to respond 5 x faster to financial downturns, and to be 65% less likely to have workplace injuries.

As well as business outcomes, good communication leads to better experiences for everyone at work. A fundamental human need is to relate to others and connect with them as people, not just as fellow achievers of tasks. Having a ‘friend’ at work is one of the top things people list as an essential factor to enjoying their job.

4. Purpose

Whether you are an employee in a government department, a huge corporation or a small business, all of us have moments where we question what our contribution is, where we fit in and what impact we are having.

We all yearn to be part of something that is bigger than ourselves. People feel much more motivated to achieve something, together, when the purpose of their work is clear, and they believe in it.

Given that purpose can make us feel happier about our jobs, more connected to others and more proud of what we achieve, it’s worth taking a moment to connect with the purpose we find in our work. We can all be part of a team that is driven by a shared mission, and committed to doing high quality work of value that we find great satisfaction in. Nothing bonds a team like a shared purpose.

5. Gratitude

Gratitude is not only about the ‘big’ things. It’s about saying thank you for helping out, and celebrating the little successes as well as the big wins. It’s about noticing other people and their contributions (there’s mindfulness popping up again…!). A gracious, grateful state of mind, plus a genuine expression of thanks, can make someone’s day.

Of course, gratitude – like happiness – can’t be mandated. We can’t tell our employees to be grateful to the employer or to their colleagues, as that could be counterproductive. But we can model that mindset to our colleagues, as it will make them happier and us happier too.

Build happiness: Get Mooski!

Workplaces shouldn’t be cults. But employers can build these skills in employees, give them useful information and provide opportunities for self-reflection and relationship-building, and enable them to bring their best selves to every working day.

Worklogic has just launched Mooski, a delightful team-building program, after two years of research, development and pilot. Mooski guides teams – through podcasts, simple activities and reflection with co-workers – to get to know each other better, to explore their purpose, to connect with the meaning of their work and to communicate better.

As it is delivered online, Mooski is easily accessible, wherever and whenever your staff work. The delivery experience is the same for everyone – even remote, flexible and part-time workers.

Mooski is an affordable and accessible to build positive mindsets in your employees! You can talk to Director Rose Bryant-Smith or our Manager of Digital Products Rosa Scott, on (03) 9981 6500 about getting Mooski for your teams.

Select Research Citations

Employee surveys: Jan-Emmanuel De Neve & George Ward, ‘Does work make you happy?’, Harvard Business Review, 20 March 2017.

Flow: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Flow (2011) and his excellent Ted Talk

Goal achievement: Burnette, Jeni & O’Boyle, Ernest & M Vanepps, Eric & Pollack, Jeffrey & J Finkel, Eli. (2012). Mind-Sets Matter: A Meta-Analytic Review of Implicit Theories and Self-Regulation. Psychological Bulletin. 139.

Productivity: Andrew J. Oswald, Eugenio Proto, and Daniel Sgroi, ‘Happiness and Productivity’, Journal of Labor Economics 33, no. 4 (October 2015): 789-822.

Autonomy: Gensler (2013), 2013 U.S. Workplace Survey: Key Findings

Inspired vs satisfied employees: Harvard Business Review (2015)

Engagement: Harvard Business Review (2013) and ‘Team structure and team performance in IS development’ Heng-Li Yang Jih-Hsin Tang, Information & Management, Volume 41, Issue 3, January 2004, Pages 335-349

A longer version of Rose’s article was published in 2018 as ‘The Five Keys to Happiness and Engagement at Work’, Part 1 and Part 2.

About Rose Bryant-Smith

Rose is passionate about building ethical and productive workplaces. She leads Worklogic’s consulting projects on organisational values, risk management, business ethics and corporate governance. Rose also creates digital products to build better teams and is an acclaimed speaker and author.

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