Happiness at Work. Happiness? Really?

How would you react if your company told you they were going to make your happiness a priority?

Since launching and promoting the Happiness Lab, I’ve been surprised by some of the resistance to the idea that happiness at work matters… so I thought I’d share some of the views I've encountered and my thoughts about them.


“Isn’t happiness just another name for employee engagement?"


Actually, no.

Happiness and engagement share many similarities, the differences however, whilst subtle, are quite material. It’s almost entirely a question of perspective.

Engagement is defined as “the extent to which an employee is committed to the organisation's mission and goals”. If you’ve read anything else I’ve written or heard me talk about why strategies fail, then you’ll know that just like people starting get fit plans or diets, most fail because they aren’t pursued with anything like the intent that is required.

The same is true of leadership teams and strategy - firms create strategic visions often with a rallying point in mind, rarely with any firm commitment to it but as somewhere to aim, which in many respects makes a lot of sense (in an “it’ll do” for now kind of way).

The problem comes when we start to attach our engagement activities to that strategic vision… you can tell where I’m going here. We attach engagement to strategic vision and then don’t pursue that vision… what happens is people disengage. Not only is it demoralising but it ultimately breeds cynicism which is the kind of problem that once allowed to establish, firms can repent (or lament) at leisure.

Of course I’m not saying that engaged employees isn’t what we’re looking for, I just think that we’re thinking about it backwards. We’re not happier when we’re engaged, but we are more likely to be engaged when we’re happy at work - and the evidence would support it.

We’ve made engagement conditional, and that’s a problem.

What makes Happiness different is the very fact that we’re eliminating the conditional relationship. That’s not to say that we’re not interested in it’s relationship with performance and execution of the strategy - quite the reverse. We are however removing the direct relationship with the vision or strategy and that’s key to establishing the kind of agile cultures and practices that are desired by most firms and required today.

Think of it this way, if I were to ask you to focus on getting employees more engaged, what do you think of?

Now, what about if I asked you to focus on the happiness of the team?

The two questions immediately evoke very different thoughts and likely actions. When we focus on happiness we start thinking about it from the employees perspective.


“Happiness sounds soft and fluffy… isn't it for tree-huggers?”


Firstly, I don’t think that it is at all soft and fluffy. The benefits from happier employees are wide-ranging and significant:
- 43% greater productivity (Hay Group)
- 33% higher profitability (Gallup)
- 37% increase in sales (Shawn Achor - Harvard)
- 300% more innovative (HBR)
- 51% lower staff turnover (Gallup)
- 66% lower sick leave (Forbes)
- 125% less burnout (HBR)

The truth is that most firms spend millions on technology that purports to deliver only a fraction of these benefits.

Happier employees have repeatedly been proven to be more creative, to work better with others - meaning better teamwork, collaboration and cooperation - they also create more satisfied customers. On top of all this they are more likely to be rated highly by peers and managers in terms of performance.

OK, so some of these benefits are what would be termed “soft” benefits but the outcomes generated most definitely sit in the “hard” benefit category.

The first outright rejection of the Happiness Lab came from the MD of an organisation I genuinely thought we would become a client - the conversation went a little like this…

MD - “I have really enjoyed our conversations, you’ve given me an insight into how we might rethink our challenge of engaging our employees. We can see that by looking at it from the other end of the telescope, we can do things differently"

Me - “That’s fantastic! What do you propose as the next steps?"

MD - “None, I’m afraid to say"

Me - “Sorry?” *in a slightly incredulous tone*

MD - “I’d really like to do something here, but if I stand up in front of our employees and explain that we’re going to start tracking happiness and work with us to improve everyone’s happiness… well, they’ll laugh at me… they’ll think I’ve gone nuts"

What I wish I had said (and I didn’t) was, “what’s wrong with caring about your people and what’s wrong with wanting to focus on their happiness as a primary objective of the business”… and really, what is wrong with it? If the biggest fear is of a cynical and skeptical reaction from employees (or perhaps in the worst case, guffaws and giggles), it is merely a reflection of the insincerity of many companies protestations that “our people are our greatest asset” (but we don’t want to ask them how they feel in case they’re honest).

I think it’s an incredibly powerful thing to say to employees - “We genuinely care about you, about your wellbeing and happiness. We know that when you are able to bring the best version of yourself to work everyday that we stand a much greater chance of fulfilling our collective purpose. We know that our customers will be happier too. As will our shareholders. We understand that it’s our job to create the right conditions for us all - and we’re committed to doing that"

The challenge is to mean it and then to demonstrate that commitment every day.


"We're already measuring engagement/satisfaction"


Firstly, and repeating the point above. They are different.

More than that though, engagement normally gets measured annually - often in a company wide survey with dozens and in some cases hundreds of questions. In more progressive companies the annual survey is supplemented with pulse surveys every few months, but what other critical area of performance do you measure once a year? Apart from some really big picture observations, what can we possibly glean from such infrequent measurement and how can anyone attribute results to any particular set of actions?

There is also the question of what period an annual survey is truly covering? Is it fair to assume that we’re capable of looking back at the last three months, maybe it’s only one or two? I suspect it depends upon the context in which I’m operating - I know that when we’ve undertaken surveys before our questions even suggest “thinking about the past three months…". Whatever the period that we’re able to accurately reflect, trying to cover a year in a single survey is simply too big a question. The biggest I’ve come across was a survey of 400,000 staff that took 6 months to analyse and produce an executive report - fortunately for them they only did it every other year. So not only was this company asking a set of questions only once every two years, by the time that data was analysed it was in some cases up to 9 months old and that doesn’t take into account how long it took to undertake the survey across such a vast number of employees.

The fact that almost all companies I talk to are unable to do anything meaningful with the high level feedback that they get should be setting off alarm bells and when little changes as a result of completing a survey, it is also contributing to the cynicism that causes so many other challenges.

At a time when so much of the business conversation is about big data, it’s remarkable how little of it we have about how our employees feel on a day to day basis.

We think it’s time to change that.

Not by asking swathes of questions but by tracking a simple metric - “how happy do you feel today?".

Not by taking the temperature once a year or even once a month, but by asking that same question at a different time every day.

If you knew that at a particular time on a particular day, people were generally less happy than at other times of the week, you’d be inclined to do something about it. Perhaps this could be the time for a motivational intervention… or maybe it would be a good time to break the current dynamic and get people doing something else for a moment - or perhaps just a coffee break, team chat and some cakes.

If you knew that certain tasks and activities generally resulted in a decline in happiness, wouldn't you look for ways to change it, improve it or eliminate it altogether?

If one team was always producing lower happiness scores than others elsewhere, wouldn't you want to explore why?

Imagine the possibilities.

We know that many firms have invested hugely in employee engagement, and we think that's great. We're not even suggesting that they throw away the engagement survey - but there isn’t an executive we meet that isn’t interested in improving the motivation or the commitment of their staff… and I’m pretty sure that most employees would love to work in a firm that they felt valued them as human being and cherished their happiness as much as it does the results of the business. Focusing on happiness and measuring it is a pretty good place to start.

It seems to me that there is a wonderful opportunity here for those willing to take it.

1. Reframe the engagement question, make it about the employees and make it about their happiness.
2. Get serious about understanding how what we do at work affects the happiness of your people. 3. Invest in creating the conditions for happiness at work and reap the rewards!

And finally, as always I'll finish with a quote...

"Outstanding leaders go out of their way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, it's amazing what they can accomplish." Sam Walton

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