At Work, Happiness Is an Outcome, Not A Goal

A fixation on “happiness” is evidence of a significant change in people’s relationship with work. In fact, research shows that having “happy employees” is not a goal worthy of an organization’s energy and brainpower. Not only can it be insulting to employees, but it’s also counterproductive for business goals when leaders insist on happiness.

At work happiness

Employee engagement is about creating a culture in which the barriers to excellent performance have been removed. Research tells us this about the relationship between happiness and engagement:

  • When people feel competent, respected, and part of something successful, happiness is a likely result.
  • There is a strong correlation between how well leadership is perceived to understand employee challenges and a company’s financial success.
  • Most workers today are paid to think, not simply to do. Companies that craft benefits and consequences around that responsibility have higher levels of loyalty and engagement, and thus employee satisfaction.
  • Employees and managers routinely overestimate how “happy” something will make us, whether it’s a promotion, a raise, or winning the lottery.

What makes people happy in their jobs is profoundly personal. So how can you create an environment where happiness is more likely attainable? Consider these questions:

  • Do I agree with the direction and values of the organization? 
  • Does my boss care about my concerns? 
  • Is the work I do meaningful?
  • Am I able to work to my full potential? 
  • Do I feel genuinely appreciated for the work I do?

We know that things like values, meaningfulness, and purpose matter to employees. We also know workers generally don’t quit jobs when these basic needs are met. In the more than 60,000 organizations Energage has surveyed, fewer than 40 percent of employees feel respected, challenged, and motivated by senior leadership.

Smart leaders know this. Within that focus, there is a role for fostering positive emotions like happiness. When companies emphasize and train to build character strengths, employees’ sense of wellbeing increases.

To the extent these traits are “morally positive” and associated with “happiness,” both the individual and the company benefit.

Mark Daniel Suwyn is a continuous improvement expert and consultant for Energage, a Philadelphia-based research and consulting firm that surveyed more than 2 million employees at more than 7,000 organizations in 2019. Energage is The Washington Post’s research partner for Top Workplaces.

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