The Right and Wrong of Pursuing Happiness in the Workplace

Business.com / Strategy / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

When people talk about dream jobs or Fortune 500 companies, they usually think about buffet lunches, large salaries and countless perks.

“They say a person needs just three things to be truly happy in this world: someone to love, something to do, and something to hope for.” ― Tom Bodett

When people talk about dream jobs or Fortune 500 companies, they usually think about buffet lunches, large salaries, and countless perks.

It’s the allure of minimalist furniture and the promise of great office culture. After all, almost everyone has a problem with their current occupations nowadays.

Who doesn’t dream about wide, open offices filled with smiling colleagues and understanding managers? Who wouldn’t jump at a six-figure income with a chance to take your dog to work? Doesn’t a sushi bar at your company spell health and happiness? Not to mention becoming the envy of your peers?

But maybe all this talk of workplace culture, employee engagement, and unlimited vacation is just a chunk of a bigger pie about workplace issues.

In particular, the pursuit of happiness in the workplace.

Related Article:4 Killer Benefits That Help Companies Recruit and Keep Happy Employees

Why Pursuing Employee Happiness Could Backfire

One of the biggest reasons why many companies are investing heavily in the pursuit of happiness is due to a lot of research suggesting that happy employees are more engaged, productive, and less likely to leave. While that may be true, it’s still an ideal that may not hold true for some sectors. In manufacturing, for example, it’s a given that most days are dull and being happy is not exactly on everyone’s agenda.

In an interesting article, HR thought leader Dr. John Sullivan, argues that one should be cautious when pursuing happiness in the workplace.

For one, happiness is highly subjective. One employee may desire a bigger paycheck so he could be happy, while the other may ask for more challenging projects. Second, happy employees are not necessarily the most effective or productive. In one study that busts myths about happy employees, it was found that happy workers tend to be more complacent. This has lead to more mistakes and feelings of entitlement in the workplace.

Thirdly, and perhaps the most important point, happiness at work tends to mean feeling challenged, succeeding at what you do, and having a sense of purpose. Bruce Woodcock, careers advisor at the University of Kent, wrote about these factors on one of his career satisfaction posts.

In the article, Woodcock states in a study that says how employees of small organizations are more satisfied than those working at bigger corporations. This is because smaller offices allow more freedom in terms of tasks. Workers from these organizations often take on multiple roles as well. This helps them learn other relevant skills, boosting their confidence and sense of purpose at work.

This is why despite lower wages, employees report consistent productivity and even loyalty. They may not always be happy but you can bet that they’ll do their best.

Even so, job satisfaction or even the elusive ‘workplace happiness’ is no guarantee that top talents stay. One contributing factor is pay. Your happy worker may love the job, her coworkers, and the perks; but if a better offer comes along, don’t bet that she’ll stick around simply because she’s happy at your company.

Another element to consider is the type of employee you have. If he or she is a Millennial, it’s expected that they would want to spread their wings and try other opportunities. This doesn’t mean that this generation is a bunch of ungrateful, job-hoppers. Rather, they’re just more open to adventure. And staying at a company for years is not exactly their idea of expanding their career horizons.

Pursuing Happiness: What to Chase Instead

The pursuit of happiness in the workplace may seem like a white whale but maybe it’s just a matter of perspective. As mentioned earlier, employee happiness often stems from three crucial elements: having goals, a sense of accomplishment, and feeling challenged. So instead of chasing an elusive ideal, why not focus on actions plans that deliver real results? Here are several ideas to get you started:

Related Article:Helpful Tips for Maximizing Employee Productivity in a World of Distractions

1. Emphasize Employee Career Growth

It used to be that companies emphasized self-reliance when it comes to career growth for employees. This doesn’t apply today. This is particularly true if a large chunk of your workforce is composed of millennials. This generation is after acquiring new skills and influencing others. So if your company doesn’t help guide them in the direction they want to go, you might be seeing them walk out the door.

Talk with your HR department about how to chart possible career opportunities for employees at different departments. Identify your top performers and see if they are ready for a promotion. Who are they, what are their potential skills, and how can they be developed? What new assignments can they work on?

2. Be Transparent

During the good ol’ days, businesses were more rigid. Hierarchies were encouraged and low-level employees either received the full blunt of the blade or escaped unscathed thanks to their supervisors. Nowadays, these ladder systems are slowly being cut down to make way for holocratic workplaces.

The idea is nothing new. But when Zappos made headlines with this change, more and more businesses followed suit. But why does it work despite it being confusing at first? For one, it’s because of transparency. Employees know what is expected of them; and thus, they are free to express their own hopes for the company.

While you may not want to practice holocracy anytime soon, being transparent to your employees is a good start to get them motivated. Begin by opening lines of growth-oriented communication. Be specific about your desires for your team. Ask for feedback and take their suggestions seriously. 

3. Be Open to Negotiation

Another factor that affects employee happiness is work-life balance. While most of your workers are highly motivated and want the best for the business, they may be experiencing trouble in their personal lives. This, in turn, can make them miserable at work. Managers should then be open to negotiation whenever such situations present itself.

For instance: if one of your best employees is torn between quitting or relocating, why not offer remote working? This way, he wouldn’t need to choose between the job he loves and his family. Another example is when a top performer asks you for a raise because she wants to go back to school and learn new skills. Here, you can offer either a stipend or a promotion to a different department. It depends on the conditions. But don’t be afraid of compromise.

4. Try to Negate Unhappiness

Happiness may be subjective but that doesn’t mean that management shouldn’t try to make their workplaces better. Negating unhappiness is one way to show employees that the company is in the pursuit of happiness, in one way or another. Ask workers what matters most to them. Is it career development?

Offer employee assistance schemes or mentorship programs for growth. Are they usually stressed at the office? Provide team-building sessions and flexi-time. Are there health-related concerns? Issue hygiene training and implement rules regarding workplace habits. These might sound like small things, but you’ll be surprised at how they affect employee performance.

Related Article: Happy Employees Make You More Money: The Secret to Increasing Profit Margins for Franchises

Last Words

“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” ― Mahatma Gandhi

Chasing happiness doesn’t mean spending thousands of dollars on food or motivational talks. Sometimes, employee unhappiness doesn’t even involve the job. It could be due to their personal lives or a part of their personality.

These are out of your control. However, what management should be working on is to ensure that the workplace provides a safe, nurturing condition so employees can do their best every day.

Simply throwing perks can sometimes feel like a slap in the face. If an employee is dissatisfied with the direction of his job, for instance, no sushi bar or bonus could make that better. It’ll only be a band-aid, not a solution. When it comes to the pursuit of happiness in the workplace, focus on concrete elements, not abstract ideas.

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