A recent FT article claimed that happy people may be the most effective in the workplace. Is this really surprising? Who among us wouldn’t want to be one of those fabled people who leaps out of bed in the morning and spends most of their working days productive and happy?

Researchers talk about ‘human flourishing’ (see this Cornell University research paper)or finding ‘meaning’ in the workplace (see The Why of Work by Dave & Wendy Ulrich) as a better indicator of retaining talented staff and harnessing the power of a productive workforce.

But I would hazard a guess that most employers do not concern themselves with whether their workers are happy or not. Going to work has traditionally not been seen as a way to make yourself happy, and in the present economic climate most employers would expect their employees to just be happy to have a job at all.

But as the FT article points out, the opposite of happiness in the workplace is not sadness, but fear: fear of unemployment. And as Professor Andrew Oswald, an economist at Warwick University states, ‘everything to do with fear is debilitating’. I once visited an office whose staff had recently been told by their senior management to improve their bottom line results or risk closure of the branch. Far from spurring the employees on, it created an atmosphere of anxiety and strained relationships between those working there; a bad use of the ‘stick’ approach to improving performance, as opposed to the ‘carrot’.

Any workforce is not going to be at its most productive when it’s in a state of fear. And what happens when that fear subsides? When the economy does pick up and confidence returns, the elite workers, the talent will simply up and leave.

But what does make people happy at work? Is it just to do with the rewards on offer? Some employers do concern themselves with that question, and you only have to look at pictures of Youtube’s offices in San Bruno, California to see that a nice environment and happy staff can contribute to an innovative and highly successful organisation. They even have an indoor slide. Presumably along with success comes the budget to build an office like this?

For most people, happiness at work ultimately lies in the people we are working with. We’ve often heard that employees don’t leave organisations, they leave managers. Well, often employees stay at companies because of strong working relationships. This makes sense; if we think about the amount of time we spend with our colleagues over the course of our working lives, no wonder those relationships will have a big impact on how ‘happy’ we feel to remain in that environment.

If only for retention purposes, employers need to start concerning themselves with how happy their employees are. Let’s not assume that just because staff turn up for work every day they are necessarily happy to work where they are. I’m not advocating for employers to start concerning themselves with the private lives or deeply personal motivations of their staff; happiness is an emotion, and a fleeting one at that. But there is an underlying state of being ‘happy’ that involves contentment, stability and a positive frame of mind. Surely we would want to create workplaces and working relationships that reinforce that state rather than undermine it?


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