Happiness at work – is it natural or necessary?

Young women smiling at work

When asked whether they're happy in their job, few people would claim that they are happy every moment of every day. The daily stresses of work, such as last-minute deadlines, difficult projects, and challenges with co-workers can all test our emotions.

But an employee who is frustrated with things not always going smoothly can also be happy in their job, provided that this dissatisfaction doesn't become overwhelming in the grand scheme of things. So is happiness at work simply an emotion that occurs naturally while employees are juggling the responsibilities of daily life? Or is it something that a company's leadership can actively cultivate? And, if so, what are the factors that can influence workplace happiness?

Defining happiness

First of all, it helps to know what happiness actually means in the context of the workplace. Is it that feeling we experience when a project is successfully completed and we get a pat on the back from our manager? Or does it run deeper, to underlying factors that drive morale, productivity and engagement?

According to Dr. Christine Carter, senior fellow at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, people often confuse happiness at work (and in life) with fleeting moments of gratification. She says that happiness actually involves the ability to access “a wide range of positive emotions”, including hope, optimism, confidence, gratitude, inspiration and awe.

Nic Marks, an expert on employee happiness and CEO of Happiness Works, says it boils down to three positive emotions:

  • Enthusiasm: A high-energy state that helps people create and seize opportunities. It can also work to mobilise the efforts of ourselves and others.
  • Interest: This is a “focusing energy” that helps us commit to tasks that may be challenging in the short term, but which have medium-term or long-term benefits.
  • Contentment: This relates to the “glow” that comes from having achieved something, which can lead to being more motivated to perform the actions that will repeat that success in the future.

According to a study commissioned by Robert Half, a growing body of research indicates that successful companies have happy employees who are more engaged, loyal and creative than their less-satisfied counterparts.

It also plays a significant role in productivity and work quality. Nearly two-thirds of happy employees report consistently putting in extra effort at work, according to a Horizons Workforce Consulting study. And research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology shows that employees with high levels of on-the-job satisfaction are more likely to help others and are more cooperative. Importantly, happiness is simply good for health – when there's less burnout and chronic frustration around, illness and absenteeism also go down.

Still, many companies see happiness at work as an intangible “nice to have”, rather than an important organisational priority. While you can't force employees to be happy – or control every factor that contributes to happiness – it's still possible to create the conditions that will help to promote happiness and positivity at work.

6 factors that influence happiness at work

Happiness is an individual experience and there is no “magic formula” that works for everybody. There are, however, some universal factors that have been found to directly affect employee happiness, according to our report The secrets of the happiest companies and employees.

  1. Right fit for the job and company: When you hire people who mesh well with your workplace culture, they assimilate with greater ease and begin making substantive contributions quickly. Conversely, a poor fit can dampen the morale of the entire team.
  2. A sense of empowerment: Empowering staff to make their own decisions improves happiness at work in several ways. It can build their confidence, make them feel more invested in their job, and help them develop critical skills that they can use to advance their careers, while making more meaningful contributions to the company.
  3. Feeling appreciated: When you show your staff that you appreciate their hard work and dedication, you instil loyalty and create a positive working environment. For maximum effect, Dr. Christine Carter recommends making your praise sincere, specific, and given as soon as possible.
  4. Interesting and meaningful work: Employees who see their work as worthwhile are nearly 2.5 times happier than others – with research by Robert Half finding that it's the biggest driver of happiness for people in the marketing and creative fields. An important part of this is being able to provide employees with a shared vision that helps them stay focused on their goals during both the good times and the challenging times.  According to author Todd Henry: “Happy workers understand why their work matters.”
  5. A sense of fairness: Always strive for fairness and transparency in your decision making. That means clear policies around pay, promotions and projects. Make sure employees feel heard, and have a chance to speak out when they feel a sense of inequity.
  6. Positive workplace relationships: A sense of camaraderie at work improves employee communication, cooperation and collaboration, and feeds innovation. According to Dr. Aymee Coget, founder of Happiness for HumanKIND, it starts with better leadership. “When a manager embodies positivity, their influence touches their team, clients and even their clients’ customers.”

While it will never be possible for employers to control all the factors that contribute to happiness at work, you can certainly help to create the right conditions for it. Ultimately, happiness is a choice, and a positive, healthy workplace environment is a good starting point. The benefits will be seen in better quality work, and significant improvements in recruitment and retention.

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