“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”
– Maya Angelou
You have two doors in front of you.
Behind door A, lies an experience that will leave you feeling drained, anxious, disconnected, stagnated, unsupported, undignified and full of self-doubt.
Behind door B, lies an experience that will leave you feeling energised, fulfilled, valued, supported, cherished, grown and confident.
Which one would you open?
Most people would opt for door B. The reason is simple. Most people want to experience positive emotions – be it in our families, friendships or personal relationships. We all want to be treated well. We all want to be happy.
The logic naturally applies to workplace. Gone are those days when work was expected to only provide for your living, and happiness was something to be achieved through pursuits outside work. Today, there is scientific grounding for the fact that it is both possible to find happiness at work, and that doing so is in fact good.
It might even be a need of the hour. According to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace Report (2022), “44% of the employees experienced stress a lot on the previous day” and “while 2021 saw declines in worry, sadness and anger, all these negative emotions remained above pre-pandemic levels”.[i]
As per my research and experience, employers struggle with two key questions on this issue:
- A question of principle, i.e. why should they take on the responsibility of making employees happy? What is in it for them?
- A question of delivery, i.e. is happiness something that can realistically be delivered to employees? Can employers, all things considered, make an employee happy?
This article explores the above questions.
THERE IS A BROAD CONSENSUS THAT INVESTMENT IN EMPLOYEE HAPPINESS IS WORTHWHILE
To someone like me, the justification for prioritising employee happiness is straightforward.
I see employees as collaborators who honour organisations with their hard work and talent – for whatever duration they choose to stay in employment. I see them as guests. It makes sense to treat them well, honour them and ensure that they are well taken care of as they sacrifice their time, health and personal lives to invest in the success of the organisation.
There are also compelling (and humbling) commercial reasons for prioritising employee happiness:
- Happiness in employees is associated with higher productivity and firm performance;[ii]
- Creative ideas are most likely to emerge from happy employees;[iii]
- There exists statistical evidence that links happy employees with customer satisfaction;[iv]
- Happy employees have lower health related costs compared with employees who are struggling and/or suffering;[v]
- Thriving employees realise lower turnover costs compared with struggling and/or suffering employees;[vi] and
- Happy employees are most likely to share favourable stories about their organisation.
The short point is: happiness positions people (and ultimately the organisation) towards success. As Sonja Lyubomirsky and Laura King note, “[p]ositive emotions produce the tendency to approach rather than to avoid and to prepare the individual to seek out and undertake new goals”.[vii]
THE REAL CHALLENGE: DISTILLING THE KEY FACTORS THAT WILL CREATE HAPPINESS FOR YOUR PEOPLE
Happiness is almost impossible to define.
Though external factors influence happiness, it still remains a very subjective experience. I grew up internalising the fact that happiness is something that emerges from within. I still think that is very much the case – some people manage to find happiness in the trenches, whilst some struggle to experience it even when they ostensibly seem to have it all together. The World Happiness Report 2022 helpfully notes that, “30-40% of the differences in happiness between people is accounted for by genetic differences between people”.
The flip side, as the report suggests, is that 60-70% of the variance can be attributed to differences in our environmental experiences and exposures. It is thus possible to promote well-being amongst employees, irrespective of their natural dispositions, by enabling them to experience a positive and protective environment.
Employee happiness is therefore not a goal, but a by-product that comes alive upon achievement of certain standards/metrics.[viii] I have come across three compelling models that promise happiness as a by-product (see below). The first two are sourced from academic papers, whereas the third is a tried and tested model followed by Zappos (with reported success).
- Higher Purpose, Autonomy, People, Impact (HAPI Model)[ix]
- Purpose, Engagement, Resilience and Kindness (PERK Model)[x]
- Perceived Control, Perceived Progress, Connectedness, Vision/Meaning (Zappos Model)[xi]
These are a good starting point. But they are still an overall framework. Happiness at workplace has many constructs and there is no one size fits all formula. Cynthia D Fisher provides an excellent summary of the range of happiness related constructs in the workplace in the below table:[xii]
These can further be broken down into other factors such as appreciation, transparency, communication and so on.
The key is to identify those constructs that (i) suit the requirements of your organisation; and (ii) will yield the maximum impact for maximum people.
THE STORY OF YOUR PEOPLE HOLDS THE KEY TO THEIR HAPPINESS
Every person has a story.
Our stories define and influence what we value, need, struggle with and strive for at our jobs. Not everyone at work is driven by purpose or values having a purpose. Some employees may feel engaged, but crave fulfilment. A few others may have positive relationships at work, but crave deeper connection.
Delivering happiness to employees at work should start by first understanding who your employees are, what drives them, their expectations and needs[i]– not at a single point in time, but over the course of their career trajectory. This is because happiness as a concept is dynamic. Its ingredients evolve over time. An employee may experience maximum happiness through their six-figure salary at the start of their career, but mid-career, they may prioritise their ability to make time for their passions. Such an employee’s happiness needs will not be met by offering them bonus and other perks.
As aptly summarised in the World Happiness Report, “[t]he differences between us suggest that we may need multiple and diverse interventions that are personalised to individuals”.[ii]
A lot can be achieved if organisations started familiarising themselves with the “happiness dispositions” of their unique workforce to allow design and execution of diverse and inclusive initiatives. It may also make sense to encourage employees to come up with personalised workplace happiness plans where they identify top drivers of their happiness and update it on a continuous basis. The role of the organisation then is to help employees find their own individual pathway to assimilate the elements they need to experience their definition of happiness.
The pursuit of happiness, like everything else, is a journey. The role of organisations should be to make happiness possible and accessible for employees. The role of the employee is to define their happiness, understand their needs and ask for it.
Like all good relationships, it all boils down to sincerity of intention, consistency of communication and actual investment of effort over a period of time.
What do you think?
[i] Gallup, State of the Global Workplace 2022 Report available at file:///C:/Users/saniy/Downloads/state-of-the-global-workplace-2022-download.pdf last accessed on 05/12/2022 at 23:11 pm.
[ii] Christian Krekel et. al, “Happy employees and their impact on firm performance”, available at Happy employees and their impact on firm performance | LSE Business Review last accessed on 26/11/2022 at 17:57 PM.
[iii] Jennifer Aaker et. al, “The Business Case for Happiness”, Stanford Graduate School of Business, p.2 available at https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/faculty-research/case-studies/business-case-happiness last accessed on 26/11/2022 at 13:30 PM.
[iv] Andrew Chamberlain and Daniel Zhao, “The Key to Happy Customers? Happy Employees”, Harvard Business Review, available at The Key to Happy Customers? Happy Employees (hbr.org) last accessed on 26/11/2022 at 18:33 PM.
[v] Tom Rath and Jim Harter, “The Economics of Wellbeing”, Gallup Consulting available at https://www.gallup.com/services/177050/economics-wellbeing.aspx last accessed on 06/12/2022 at 2:40 AM.
[vi] Tom Rath and Jim Harter, “The Economics of Wellbeing”, Gallup Consulting available at https://www.gallup.com/services/177050/economics-wellbeing.aspx last accessed on 06/12/2022 at 2:40 AM.
[vii] Sonja Lyubomirsky et. al, “The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success?”, Psychological Bulletin, 2005, Vol. 131, No. 6, 803–855 accessible at https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/bul-1316803.pdf last access on 05/12/2022.
[viii] Jennifer Aaker et. al, “The Business Case for Happiness”, Stanford Graduate School of Business, p.2 available at https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/faculty-research/case-studies/business-case-happiness last accessed on 26/11/2022 at 13:30 PM.
[ix] Jennifer Aaker et. al, “The Business Case for Happiness”, Stanford Graduate School of Business, p.2 available at https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/faculty-research/case-studies/business-case-happiness last accessed on 26/11/2022 at 13:30 PM.
[xi] Jennifer Aaker et. al, “Zappos: Happiness In A Box”, Case M-333 available at https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/faculty-research/case-studies/zappos-happiness-box last accessed on 05/12/2022 at 23:18 PM.