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The Workplace Happiness/Productivity Connection – Fake or Fact?

Some people working and being happy

Increasingly, companies are targeting workplace happiness as a specific goal among their employees. Why? Because research has repeatedly shown that a happy workplace environment boosts productivity, and secondarily, profits. Thus, senior leaders and managers are increasingly enrolling in seminars and conferences to help them cultivate such an environment.

On the surface, the pursuit of workplace happiness seems like a good idea. After all, all managers should want an office full of happy workers. But that’s where the problem begins. In a post-pandemic world, many workers don’t want to return to the office. And many more are feeling other pressures like those related to price inflation. While companies attempt to lure workers back to the office with various perks and conveniences, many aren’t buying it. And instead of an authentic happy workplace environment, some workers believe it feels more like a bribe. If companies truly want to encourage workplace happiness, a different approach might be required.

“If people have better relationships with each other, especially within teams, we can expect better performance. We can expect people to be more engaged, and then at the end our clients get a better service and are happier with our work.” – Sasa Popovic, CEO and Cofounder, Vega

Today’s Pursuit of Workplace Happiness

Companies didn’t just begin trying to create a happy workplace environment in the last few years. In fact, companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft tapped into this vibe decades ago. But in the aftermath of the pandemic, businesses are realizing just how important workplace happiness is to their bottom line. Some labor studies show that workers with more positive attitudes are roughly 12% more productive. Likewise, the top 100 workplaces in the country earn their shareholders greater returns than others. Amidst the Great Resignation and challenges filling position vacancies, happiness has thus began receiving more attention. And as you might guess, companies are investing heavily in these areas.

The difficulty for many of these companies, however, involve determining what kind of return on investment they’re getting. Several companies now exist to help with this problem. For example, Happy Ltd. In the UK offers a Happy MBA for senior managers to help them cultivate a happy workplace environment. For $18,000, these managers take a course and receive a certificate. Other companies offer surveys and assessments to determine workplace happiness among employees. Woohoo and Heartcount, both Danish companies, have designed these instruments with the aid of psychologists and statisticians. Whether or not these services pay positive dividends remains to be seen on a broader scale.

“There’s evidence that we get the causal arrow of happiness wrong. You think, ‘I’m feeling productive at work and things are going well at work and therefore I’m happy.’ But the evidence seems to suggest that the other arrow exists as well, that happiness can really affect your work performance.” – Laurie Santos, Cognitive Scientist Professor, Yale University

Authenticity Matters

In taking a sample of businesses today trying to create a happy workplace environment, some of the efforts seem superficial. Some businesses have increased snacks in the breakroom or may have even arranged a food truck for lunch. Others have redesigned office spaces to give them a more comfy, homey feel. Others are giving workers greater autonomy in choosing their supervisors or eliminating performance reviews. These are all being done in an effort to promote workplace happiness. But is this really working? At the end of the day, do these amenities actually equate to worker happiness?

Some people living that post-it life
Workplace happiness is an essential component of a productive work environment.

Perhaps, the best definition of workplace happiness is related to one’s meaningfulness of work and their sense of belonging. When workers enjoy authentic relationships, that is when they feel most engaged and content. These are the type of relationships where employee needs are prioritized and solutions considered. For many employees, the perks, gifts and conveniences being offered to attract them back to the office seems suspect. Similarly, the motivations behind the pursuit of a happy work environment seem misplaced. Certainly, a happy work environment does correlate to higher productivity and less employee turnover. But pursuing a positive company culture through unauthentic means may very well backfire in the long run. (Want to learn the truth about company culture? This Bold story reveals it!)

“I don’t think these things like meditation or whatever employers may be doing to increase well-being are bad initiatives. But they do not substitute for decent wages, decent benefits, sane scheduling.” – Heidi Shierholz, President of the Economic Policy Institute

A Broader Vision of Workplace Happiness

When it comes down to it, there is nothing wrong with adding some niceties to the office space. These things can certainly help create a happy workplace environment. But these alone will fail to accomplish the level of workplace happiness that companies desire. Instead, it’s important that businesses take a much broader perspective when it comes to encouraging positive attitudes among their employees. Real happiness, in the workplace or otherwise, occurs when one’s needs are met and they feel connected to a team. Therefore, it takes much more than a more casual attire or a beer fridge in the break room. It requires a deeper understanding of their preferences and greater inclusivity in their roles to achieve the company’s vision.

With this in mind, a great place to start in today’s post-pandemic world requires addressing worker schedules. Remote and hybrid work arrangements are preferred by most because it allows them to enjoy better work-life balance. Likewise, as inflation increases, a return to the office full-time means extra travel and meal costs. If employers want to cultivate real workplace happiness, these issues need to be addressed. At the same time, companies should re-explore how workers and managers interact and how this creates real engagement and participation. And of course, a fair compensation for their efforts and the economic landscape should be a priority as well. When these types of needs are respected, employee engagement and productivity will increase. And ultimately, these will foster a happy workplace environment much more than any gimmicks or games.


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