A Skeptic’s View of Happiness at Work

The Intro Bit

If you know me, follow me on social media, or just make up a fake backstory about me (please make me a pirate), you probably realize that while I like to laugh and have fun, I’m not a particularly “up” person.

What I mean by that is I am not a Pollyanna who looks on the bright side of things and always believes things are all going to work out. I tend towards realism with a dose of cynicism. (And a side of eyeroll for good measure.)

So when the whole “happiness” thing started hitting the internet, I was skeptical.  It sounded like just another way of talking about work without having to have any data or research behind it beyond a Cosmo quiz. And deep down, I suspected Pharrell had something to do with it.

Therefore, I did what every good skeptic does. I researched it so I could debunk it.

The Sorta Science-y Bit

Here’s the thing – while some of the “science” out there is a little sketchy (or…a LOT sketchy), there is some really compelling evidence that happiness at work makes a difference to the success of an organization. The iOpener Institute has developed a happiness measure and released some findings in the Wall Street Journal – happy employees stay twice as long, are more likely to help their colleagues, are less likely to be absent, and are more efficient. (For more info, read this white paper.)

Basically, happy employees perceive themselves to be more connected to their organization and are therefore more likely to stay on task and are more likely to choose to be engaged at work than non-happy employees.

The Skeptical Bit

While certain research points to some strong correlation between happiness and connection to business, there is no predictive model between happiness and business performance indicators.

Also, happiness sounds suspiciously like “satisfaction” to me – and you can have satisfied employees who are completely happy to do as little as possible at work. In fact, some research even suggests that job satisfaction has a NEGATIVE impact on productivity. So I’m curious to see additional research into this area.

The ‘Here’s How to Make it Work’ Bit

While still preliminary, there’s enough out there to point to definite benefits to supporting happiness at work. As leaders and HR professionals, you are in the perfect position to help employees make the choice to be happy, thereby gaining some positive outcomes for the workplace.  As employees, no matter what your role, you have the power to decide about your own happiness at work.

Some things to keep in mind as you embark on the journey to Work Happyland:

  • Happiness is unique to each person: One of the reasons a predictive model is so hard to find is because “happy” means different things to different people. Watching this video of a tiny horse trotting makes me ridiculously happy. Other people prefer NASCAR. So you have to be willing to adapt to the needs of your team and organization.
  • The pressure to be happy can bum you out: One psychological experiment reported by the Harvard Business Review suggests that the increased expectation of employees to build an “upbeat” workplace can lead to resentment – having the opposite effect on the workplace. Don’t force your people to smile all the time. Create environments where happiness can happen organically.
  • Sometimes, it’s okay to work angry: Some people are more focused, able to detect deception, and negotiate WAY better when they have a little edge. Keep in mind that sometimes happiness can hurt productivity and quality, so don’t be worried if someone isn’t giddy all the time.
  • Help folks set boundaries: We continue to blend work and life more and more – and it’s stressing people out. By making it okay for your employees to leave home at home and work at work, you give them permission to save their best selves for when they need it most.

The research in this area is still emerging, so I am keeping my eyes and ears open as we learn more about happiness at work. I also reserve my right to roll my eyes every now and then if you try to tell me it’s a standalone metric, or if you try to be all obnoxious about it.

On the other hand, my inner skeptic wants to believe. After all, we spend A LOT of time at work. So why not at least try to make it a happy place to be?


Originally posted on the Surviving Leadership Blog.


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