BY Raghunath Basavanahalli | February 17, 2020

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As we embark on a new decade, I thought this may be a good time to reflect on Happiness – specifically, Happiness at work. It is with a sense of trepidation that I write about concepts like happiness, and doubly so in the context of the workplace. The trouble starts right at the very beginning, with the basic question of the definition of happiness.

As my dad would often say, “Happiness is an abstract concept”.

Had you mentioned this topic to me during the beginning of my career, a couple of decades back, I would have laughed and brushed it aside. We were “old school” professionals from a different era who were brought up in work environments where concepts like Happiness did not even occur in our collective consciousness at the workplace. The message was simple – there were things to be done, often very tough and unreasonable, you had to just plough through and get the job done.

After office, colleagues got together for some drinks, and had animated spicy storytelling sessions of the day gone by. In the process, I guess we created our own “Happiness”. Those were the days before laptops, smartphones and the internet and once you were out of office, it was pretty much shutters down. The common model was, you work, make money, come home or meet friends and be Happy.

workplace happiness

What is Happiness @ Work and how to measure it?

Prof Edward F. Diener is an American psychologist, professor, and author. He is noted for his research over the past thirty years on happiness. According to Professor Ed Diener, Happiness and subjective wellbeing is defined as a person’s cognitive and affective evaluation of his or her own life. It broadly means experiencing pleasant emotions, low levels of negative mood and high life satisfaction.

For the purposes of our discussion here, let us define Happiness at work as:

  • a positive and pleasant feeling at work
  • excitement at going to work
  • liking the people you interact with at the workplace
  • feeling safe and appreciated at the workplace
  • ability to associate some meaning to our work, and
  • have some fun in the process

Lord Richard Layard is a well-known British economist. He is the founder-director of the Centre for Economic Performance, at the London School of Economics, where he is presently programme director. In 2012, he co-edited with Jeffry Sachs and John Helliwell, the World Happiness Report. For the first time, a concerted effort was made to move happiness (at work) from just being a fluffy concept to the realm of proper measurements.

The study has a couple of significant findings for Happiness related to work. It revealed that a majority of the people around the globe were unhappy at work. In an interview with McKinsey in 2019, Lord Layard said, “Here is the most shocking fact that I’ve come across in happiness research: the time of day or the time in the week that people least enjoy is when they’re with their boss. This says something about the management style that we have been generating in recent years. There is too much rule by the creation of anxiety and fear and not enough by motivation and enjoyment and inspiration. We need bosses who will inspire, and lead by inspiring, rather than by frightening people.

We can’t expect employees to be engaged if they don’t enjoy work. This co-relates well with the many Gallup surveys over the years that a majority of employees are not fully engaged in their jobs.

On the other hand, research from Professors Ed Diener and Shigehiro Oishi in 2006 (which included about 10,000 respondents in over 40 countries) confirmed that Happiness was the top goal of people globally, ahead of big (six-hundred-pound gorilla) goals like success and wealth.

If you put together these studies, the picture that emerges is not pretty. It clearly shows that our work is not aligned and congruent to our life’s top goal and in fact one can argue that it works actively against our highest stated goal. This effect seems graver when you take the perspective that we spend more than a third of our waking life at work.

Why should we be happy at work?

Higher Productivity – A recent study at Oxford University has clearly established what people have long suspected – happier employees are on average more productive. This six-month study of 1,800 sales and call centre workers at British telecom firm BT found a clear causal effect of happiness on productivity. The workers were asked to rate their happiness each week via an email survey comprising five emoji buttons, from very sad to very happy. Happy employees not only worked faster, making more calls per hour, but also achieved 13% higher sales than their unhappy colleagues.

Image: Social Science Research Network – (weforum)

 

Better team players and coworkers – According to Prof Rajagopal Raghunathan of McComb’s Business School at UT Austin, a leading researcher and author on happiness, happy employees:

  • are more collegial, better team players
  • have better health and energy – take less sick leave, and
  • are more helpful to coworkers

More Creative and Innovative – In her seminal and interesting study, called “Broaden and Build”, Prof Barbara Fredrickson of University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has elegantly shown that even small positive emotions (a good indicator of happiness), broaden our awareness and create a kind of expansiveness. As humans, we are almost hardwired for this expansiveness. It is like opening an aperture, which in turn creates more resourcefulness, innovation and creativity.

Lower Attrition and higher Customer Loyalty – Other significant benefits include lower employee turnover and better customer satisfaction and loyalty. The single most important reason for employee turnover globally is the relationship with their manager. Happy employees usually have a better relationship with their managers and more importantly, happier managers have a better relationship with their subordinates. As all of us acknowledge, the cost of employee turnover to companies is quite high. It increases talent acquisition cost and time, training cost, time to market and significantly lowers productivity overall. A happy employee also serves a customer better, increasing customer satisfaction and loyalty. Customer satisfaction and loyalty are pillars of business strategies and many companies like Zappos and Southwest Airlines have built their entire business model on customer obsession.

Makes us human (and moral) – The economic benefits of the happy employee for the company are clear. What I think is even more important is the negative effects of an unhappy and dissatisfied workforce. Job dissatisfaction is strongly correlated to mental health issues. According to Lord Layard, one in six people in the work force are facing mental challenges and one in three will face them at some point in their careers. This is a problem of almost epidemic proportions. It then becomes a business, societal and moral imperative that companies create environments to promote employee wellbeing.

How do we facilitate Happiness @ Work?

There are, in my opinion, 10 things that we can do to increase our happiness at work. We can broadly divide these into two categories. One is personal, things that the employee can do themselves, irrespective of the employer and two, things the manager, employer or the company can do to promote wellbeing.

Five Actions that the Employee can take:

  • Increase Attention and Focus – Paying attention is difficult and has become more so with all the global digital products competing for our attention. This has placed a huge premium on our ability to pay attention and stay focused. There is a myriad of ways to be distracted today at work. Prof Cal Newport has written a book on this subject called “Deep Work”. In this book, he recommends that we block and schedule certain times of the day daily as uninterrupted time. Experts have consistently said that this must be like a habit rather than dependent on our will power. The cognitive cost of “attention residue” that is created even by small switching of context is not trivial.
  • Mind Training – Emotional Intelligence Guru, Daniel Goleman and a few others, have shown that even a few minutes of paying attention to our breathing or meditating helps us to declutter the mind and increase focus, a fundamental prerequisite for happiness.
  • Manage your energy (not time) – It is super difficult to be happy if you are sick and lack energy. A commitment to a regular exercise regimen can go a long way in being happier. Many years back, I attended a seminar by Tony Schwartz, CEO of the Energy Project, a high-performance coach who has coached many elite athletes and CEOs. His key insight was that for high performance in any field, we need to manage energy and engagement and not necessarily time. Tony suggests that the foundation to managing energy starts with physical health.
  • Make social connections – Having a close buddy at work is one the biggest determinants of happiness at work. Prof Raghunathan says it really helps to have a very close friend at work and this belongingness is key to workplace happiness. An Inc magazine article mentions a study on the impact of work friendships and found strong evidence that close friendships at work are essential to personal happiness and career success: 70% of employees said friendships at work are the most crucial element to a happy working life. 
  • Create your own Challenges (and Meaning) – Prof Adam Grant at the Wharton Business School along with Amy Wrzesniewski at the Yale School of Management and Jane Dutton at the Michigan’s Ross School of Business, talk about a concept called Job Crafting. Job crafting is a set of techniques for helping you reconfigure the elements of your job to spark greater engagement and meaning. The forms of job crafting are Task Crafting, Relational Crafting and Cognitive Crafting.  For example, a corporate attorney with a passion for teaching could start an intern program (task crafting), get her colleagues involved in the program (relational crafting), and mentally frame the program as an opportunity to fulfill and spread her passion for teaching (cognitive crafting). That does not mean advocating for doing whatever you want at work. Instead, pitch your boss a meaningful side project that will take up about 10 percent of your time at the office.

Five Actions that the Manager, Employer and Company can take:

  • Communicate a clear purpose – We should regularly communicate a clear purpose and tie our employee/ team member’s work to that purpose. For example, if call center salespeople who are calling for donations from alumni are told that the donations that they are collecting are ultimately funding the education of underprivileged students, the performance of the team goes up significantly. In some other cases the company has clearly defined its purpose and that can be communicated to teams consistently. For example, Southwest Airlines’ purpose is” To connect People to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable, and low-cost air travel.”
  • Team Performance instead of Individual Performance – This is the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. By measuring individual performance, we pit one against the other in a race. This is inherently anxiety-producing to team members. Instead, if we can look at the entire team’s performance, that can promote a healthy culture of trust, helpfulness and cooperation. Dan Coyle, in his bestseller “Culture Code”, mentions that (team) interactions are as important as individual skills. Bad team culture is often caused by certain group members being focused on their place in the group, everything becomes personal and the focus sways away from the task at hand to personal egos. Good teams and managers build a psychological safe environment that helps create a “band of brothers” kind of camaraderie.
  • Promote Mastery – It can immensely help if Mastery Goals (rather than only Performance Goals) are set up for team members. With Mastery goals, individuals can reappraise identity threatening situations in more positive ways, which can affect how they feel and act. Specifically, when individuals actively change their mindset to construe an identity threat as a learning experience (rather than a time to perform at one’s best or avoid errors), it allows them to feel challenged, engaged and ultimately perform well.
  • Create conditions of Flow – Create goals that are a little harder/ challenging than what the person is used to. If the goals are too hard, the person will burnout and lose confidence. If the goals are easily achieved, it creates boredom (My blog on Flow for reference The Flow State) Also, it is long acknowledged that for significant or challenging work to happen, one needs uninterrupted time. Our days are peppered with multiple interruptions – unscheduled meetings, managers wanting some information immediately, open office clutter and noise, and so on and so forth. Managers should make concerted effort to reduce this clutter for their team members.
  • Give greater Autonomy – Managers must give their teams more autonomy and stay away from their tendency to micromanage. This is easier said than done. A careful balance needs to be struck between providing autonomy and creating chaos. In an HBR article, Prof Deborah Anacona and Dr. Kate Issacs have suggested that organizations can achieve this balance by adopting one or more of the following (a) Cultivating a strategic mindset (b) Implement simple rules (c) Funneling and (d) Distributed Risk Mitigation.

I hope that I have been able to evoke thought and trigger some conversation around this important and often neglected topic of “happiness” at the workplace. By no means is this the last word on this topic; if anything, it is just the beginning. I would love to hear your views on this. Till then – Be Happy!!

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