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Happy Workers Care About the Work They Do

Many employers are finding happy workers to be more productive, amicable and invested in their work.

1014-Cover.jpgWhen did the concept of employee happiness enter the workplace? Employee satisfaction and engagement are concepts that have been around for a while. But happiness?

Maybe it started in 2006 when Tal Ben-Shahar’s course on positive psychology became the most popular one at Harvard University. Or in 2007, when more than 200 colleges and graduate schools were offering courses on happiness and booksellers became inundated with self-help books on the topic. Whenever it started, employers are beginning to pay attention.

Of interest to them: What makes employees happy?

Defining Happiness

What is happiness, anyway? It’s a question that philosophers have debated for centuries, and one for which there is no simple answer. Aristotle postulated that happiness (or human flourishing) is not a state but an activity, chosen for its own sake and achieved by living up to one’s potential as a rational being.

Ben-Shahar’s definition is similar. He sees happiness as “the overall experience of pleasure and meaning” that occurs when a person finds his or her life purposeful. People can experience emotional pain but still be happy overall, he says.

Others view happiness as more of a fleeting state, and there are many alternate definitions—which makes measuring happiness tricky. Questionnaires have been developed to rate happiness (including the Oxford Happiness Questionnaire and the Subjective Happiness Scale), but the answers are subjective and based on how people feel at any given moment, instead of their overall temperament.

It’s also hard to parse how happiness relates to similar concepts such as satisfaction, engagement and joy.

Every year, studies from top workplace research groups track employee satisfaction and engagement, and there have been numerous attempts to link these two measures to employee happiness. However, the relationships are complex, says Teresa Amabile, a professor and director of research at Harvard Business School in Boston.

Satisfaction depends on whether employees are content with certain aspects of their job, including pay, the physical environment, the number of hours worked and the type of work assigned, says Amabile, co-author of The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work (Harvard Business Review Press, 2011).

Engagement, however, relates to how people connect to their work—whether the work is interesting to them and personally satisfying. And engagement tends to be relatively stable for an individual in a given job.


Job Satisfaction:
Top Factors

  • Compensation/pay.
  • Job security.
  • Opportunities to use one’s skills and abilities.
  • Relationship with immediate supervisor
  • Benefits.
Employee Engagement:
Top Factors
  • Relationships with co-workers.
  • Opportunities to use one’s skills and abilities.
  • Relationship with immediate supervisor.
  • The work itself.
  • One’s contributions to the organization’s business goals.
Source: 2013 Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement research report, Society for Human Resource Management.


These differences may explain why the results of employee engagement and satisfaction surveys often don’t correlate. Gallup’s 2013 State of the Global Workplace report found that just 30 percent of U.S. employees (and only 13 percent of worldwide employees) are engaged at work. But in the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2013 Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement research report, 81 percent reported overall satisfaction with their current job.

To Julie Weber, vice president of people at Southwest Airlines—a company that prides itself on its culture of happiness—engagement seems to be more closely linked to happiness than satisfaction is. To say someone is “satisfied” is not really a glowing recommendation. “It means they are content enough that they’re not actively looking to leave,” she says.

And joy? Richard Sheridan, CEO and chief storyteller at Menlo Innovations Inc., a software company in Ann Arbor, Mich., views it as the gladness people feel when they are working toward a goal that is larger than themselves and deeply meaningful to them. “Parenting is a joyful activity, but it is not always happy. Joy comes from the vision of the goal,” says Sheridan, author of Joy, Inc.: How We Built a Workplace People Love (Portfolio, 2013).

The Work Itself

So while employee satisfaction and engagement data can help identify factors that contribute to employee happiness, they don’t tell the whole story.

To promote a more holistic sense of happiness, Bruce Tulgan, founder of RainmakerThinking Inc., a management research and consulting company in New Haven, Conn., suggests starting with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—a theory put forth by the American psychologist Abraham Maslow in 1943. The hierarchy is often represented as a pyramid that places people’s most basic physiological needs, such as food, shelter and safety, at the base and more-abstract human desires, such as creativity, self-esteem and respect, at the top. The human needs for love and belonging fall somewhere in the middle. The needs at the base are the ones most critical to survival, while those at the top are only realized by the lucky few who achieve the “self-actualization” that may facilitate the most happiness.

The needs in the hierarchy are common across all generations, Tulgan says.

Weber at Southwest Airlines finds that, after employees’ basic needs in a job are met, what makes them happy is “when they feel they are contributing to something that is important, and they love what they are doing and who they are doing it with.”

The work itself is vital, agrees Marion Hodges Biglan, vice president of human assets business partners at Teach for America, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit committed to providing educational opportunities for children living in poverty. “Employees can have the best benefits in the world,” she says, “but if they don’t feel successful in their jobs and care about what they are trying to accomplish,” they won’t be happy. That’s true for Charlie Morgan, a partner in the Atlanta office of Alston & Bird LLP. A labor and employment litigator, Morgan says his firm provides its 1,750 employees with many wonderful benefits, but what really makes him happy is when he is working with a multidisciplinary team on “an important and urgent matter with serious consequences.”

Making Progress

That may be why employee engagement surveys come closer than satisfaction surveys to measuring employee happiness. But employers’ efforts to improve engagement often fall short, according to Towers Watson’s 2012 Global Workforce Study, which states that “engagement, as traditionally defined, is not sufficient to give employers the sustained performance lift they need—or keep employees doing their work effectively in today’s pressured and fast-paced work environment.”

What’s missing?

Towers Watson points to two elements:

Effectively enabling workers with internal support, resources and tools.

Creating an environment that’s energizing to work in because it promotes physical, emotional and social well-being.

That aligns closely with Amabile’s research. When it comes to what makes people happy at work and provides them with positive feelings, she says, the single most important factor by far is the sense that they are making progress in meaningful work—what she calls “the progress principle.”

“I don’t want to diminish the interpersonal things that are important—respect, recognition, encouragement, emotional support, affiliation and camaraderie,” Amabile says. “Those are important, too, but they did not show up as strongly as progress did.”

Using 12,000 diary entries from 238 employees at seven companies, as well as performance measures from their supervisors and co-workers, Amabile and co-author Steven Kramer found that employees felt more positive when they were moving forward and making incremental progress on a project. When the employees felt the most positive, they were more creative, more productive and more committed to the project they were working on.

Creating Happiness

To increase employees’ happiness, Amabile offers several tips:

Help facilitate progress. Try to eliminate the day-to-day hassles—interruptions, additional work, micromanagement, unclear goals—that impede people’s ability to make progress in their most important work.

At Menlo, the staff of 20 employees and 30 consultants breaks their projects down into eight-hour pieces and tracks progress with cards pinned to the wall: yellow when starting a project, orange when it is completed, and green when another team double-checks the work and says it really is done.

Intermediate goals are important, too; scoring small wins can make a big difference.

Provide goals, meaning and autonomy. Offer employees clear, meaningful goals and explain why what they are doing is important and contributes to the organization and the world. Then give them autonomy. People need to be able to use their skills, creativity and perspective to reach those goals.

That has always been a part of Southwest Airlines’ culture. Southwest’s leaders trust the company’s 46,000 employees to do the right thing for customers. “We don’t have a rulebook for how to provide great customer service,” Weber says.

Make the most of mistakes. Don’t ignore mistakes or castigate the people responsible for them. Rather, analyze what happened and what the company can learn from them. Only one organization in Amabile’s study—a chemical company—provided such an environment. The attitude permeated the company culture, and all leaders focused on the work, not the person. They asked what could be learned from what went wrong and whether some of the work effort could be salvaged.

Menlo employees have a saying when it comes to new ideas: “Run the experiment.” It might not always work, but they try an idea before rejecting it. Several years ago, someone suggested that moms be allowed to bring their babies to work. “I could come up with eight reasons against that idea,” Sheridan says, but at Menlo the attitude is “let’s run the experiment, see what happens and then adjust to what actually happens instead of what we imagine will happen.” It did take some adjustments, but mothers now are able to bring their babies to work. “It’s delightful,” Sheridan says.

Spread recognition. Recognize all employees when they are successful. Recognizing front-line workers is often easy; it can be harder to identify and acknowledge support staff.

“People want to know that what they do matters in some way and that it’s meaningful,” says Cathy Benton, chief human resources officer at Alston & Bird.

12% Increase in productivity that comes from happiness

Source: Happiness and Productivity research paper by Oswald, Proto and Sgroi, University of Warwick, 2014.

“Sometimes in a law firm environment, though, the staff may not realize how important what they do is to the organization.” So when attorneys finish a case, they thank everybody—secretaries, paralegals, receptionists, even the people who set up the conference rooms for them.

Hire Happy

Southwest’s Weber has some straightforward advice about happiness at work. “First of all, you hire happy people,” she says. “We hire people who will be happy serving others, people who really want to do the job we are hiring them to do.”

The airline’s interview process helps identify those who will fit the company’s culture. “Even with our entry-level positions, we expect candidates to be able to articulate why they want that particular job and why they want that job at Southwest Airlines,” Weber says. “That’s very important to us.”

When the fit is good and workers are happy, it’s obvious even to those outside the company. In fact, many job candidates at Southwest say they want to work there because they had an amazing flight, experienced great customer service or saw employees who seemed to enjoy their work.

Menlo’s reputation as an organization focused on joy in the workplace helps it attract the right people as well. It has never had to place an ad or hire a recruiter to fill a position. “We have a very specific culture and are very intentional about it,” Sheridan says. “The people who choose to come here are self-selecting workers. … They want to be part of the culture.”

When people ask Sheridan about joy in the workplace, he tells them joy is about being focused on a goal bigger than yourself and feeling like you have accomplished something. That sounds a lot like Amabile’s definition of happiness.

People want to work with joyful employees, Sheridan says. It doesn’t take a study to explain why: Joyful people are more productive, easier to work with, care more about the outcome and produce higher-quality work—and that makes for a pretty happy workplace.

Nancy Hatch Woodward is a freelance writer based in Georgia.


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