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Is too much happiness at work a bad thing?

Posted by Nikky Lee - 24 March, 2020

The link between engaged employees and business success has long been documented. Engaged employees are motivated, productive, will go the extra mile, and are better creative thinkers and team builders. 

But what we’re seeing is businesses confusing employee engagement with employee happiness. 

They are not the same thing. And focusing solely on happiness could be doing more damage than good.

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The problem with happiness

Happiness is powerful. It’s crucial to our health and wellbeing. And employees who are happy at work are 20 per cent more productive1, are less prone to absenteeism, and are loyal to your company.

Sounds like the dream workplace, right? But here’s the paradox: the pursuit of happiness actually makes us more unhappy.2

“Valuing happiness could be self-defeating because the more people value happiness, the more likely they will feel disappointed,” write Iris Mauss et al in the paper that uncovered said paradox. “Valuing happiness—as many people do—can backfire.”

What Mauss and her colleagues found is that people approached their pursuit of happiness the same way they approached other life goals—do well in an exam, nail that job interview, lose weight. 

On the surface it seems like a perfectly reasonable approach. If you study hard, you’ll be rewarded with good exam results; if you follow a diet plan you’ll drop the kilos—if you pursue happiness surely you’ll end up happy?

Not so, according to Mauss and co-authors. Because happiness isn’t really a goal—it’s an intangible feeling. You can’t measure it like a test score or numbers on a scale. Because of that, it’s totally incompatible with our usual goal-orientated approach. 

“People who highly value happiness set happiness standards that are difficult to obtain, leading them to feel disappointed about how they feel, paradoxically decreasing their happiness the more they want it,” Mauss et al write.

And their findings apply to businesses too. 

 

Happiness in the workplace

The problem with an over-emphasis on happiness in the workplace is that it encourages staff to pretend it when they don’t genuinely feel it. And it’s not a case of faking it until you make it. Research from Germany has found that faking happiness at work increases stress and can cause health problems ranging from depression to cardiovascular conditions.

To expect staff to be happy all the time is unrealistic. As André Spicer and Carl Cederström write in the Harvard Business Review, “In reality, work— like all other aspects of life—is likely to make us feel a wide range of emotions. If your job feels depressing and meaningless, it might be because it is depressing and meaningless. Pretending otherwise can just make it worse.”

Pretending also means issues, such as stress, poor management, toxic culture and understaffing, are more likely to go undetected.

Which begs the question, what do businesses do? We want genuinely happy, productive employees, but how do we get them there?

 

Facilitate, don’t measure

You can’t put a price on happiness. But you can create an environment for it to occur organically. Initiatives to help your employees manage their stress, work-life balance and form workplace friendships will go a long way towards this. 

This might include:

  • Flexible hours and work from home options. 
  • Encouraging staff to take leave and mental health days to avoid burnout.
  • Investing in your staff—from providing them industry standard tools and equipment to perform their roles, to staff training and career planning. 
  • Work social events.

 

Learn more: The 10 Pillars of Employee Experience

 

Identify your detractors

Addressing and removing employee frustrations can also go a long way to improving the wellbeing of your staff and their productivity. An anonymous eNPS survey is an excellent way to uncover common frustrations among your staff, from understaffing and unclear role expectations to work-life balance issues such as a long commute eating into family time, or even a toxic personality in the workplace.

Important note: toxic employees often affect other employees—dragging down the whole mood of the office. This requires careful management to turn around. You can read more about how to manage a toxic work culture here.

 

Strive for engagement

As mentioned earlier, engagement and happiness are not the same. Instead of setting lofty goals on a difficult-to-define emotion—powerful as it is—focus on the tangibles: employee engagement. This you can measure and set KPIs for, such as recognising your employees achievements and efforts once a week, or ensuring staff members have a training opportunity every quarter, six-months, one year—you name it. 

By focusing on the process and not the end game, you might achieve happiness as a byproduct of engagement—all without even meaning to. 

Learn other engagement strategies EX leaders are using here. 

Finally, being happy on the job shouldn’t feel like a chore. If it does, it’s probably not the real deal.

 

Want to create an inclusive and positive workplace? Uncover the 10 Pillars of Employee Experience to engage your employees and build a healthy workplace culture.

Download now


  1. Social Market Foundation, Happiness and productivity: Understanding the happy-productive worker, 2015.
  2. Iris B. Mauss, Maya Tamir, Craig L. Anderson, and Nicole S. Savino, Can Seeking Happiness Make People Happy? Paradoxical Effects of Valuing Happiness, 2011.

Topics: Employee experience


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