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What Makes Us Happy at Work?

We all find ourselves complaining about our jobs and bosses, even when we enjoy our work and the routine of going to the office; it’s human nature. But do we truly understand what brings us genuine happiness in our workplace? Is it a giant slide in the middle of the office, bean bags, a juice bar, or free coffees? Or is it something less tangible that we can’t quite put our finger on?

There is a compelling business case for employee well-being. When our health and well-being are in check, we tend to be more creative and productive, translating into increased profits for the organisation. The University of East Anglia, in collaboration with the Universities of Essex, Sheffield, and Reading, conducted evidence-based research into whether working practices can influence our happiness, productivity, and absenteeism. Their research focused on three main areas: pay, the social environment, and people management.

Money Doesn’t Make Us Happy

The age-old saying, ‘Money doesn’t bring happiness,’ holds true, especially in the context of incentive pay, as suggested by research. While fair compensation and positive feedback are essential for recognising and rewarding job performance, the trend in businesses is shifting away from a single-minded pursuit of efficiency and traditional bonuses tied to hitting targets. This shift is motivated by the realisation that such an approach often places undue pressure on employees, making them feel overburdened and the job overly demanding.

Researchers have observed negative consequences, including increased pressure on employees to work harder, leading to potential burnout. This pressure can also strain relationships among colleagues, particularly for those with caregiving responsibilities who are unable to work overtime, fostering feelings of resentment and rivalry. Although extra earnings are valued by employees, there is an understanding that the ultimate beneficiary of their commitment and extra efforts is the organisation. As businesses recognise the complexities of employee well-being, they are exploring alternative approaches to incentives and rewarding performance, aiming for a healthier and more sustainable work environment.

Good Managers Make All the Difference

There is a strong link between effective people management and well-being in the workplace. Adopting a management style that empowers workers to influence their own work, fosters a culture of respect, motivation, and feedback, will have a positive impact on well-being and happiness. Our relationship with our boss or line manager is the single most significant factor influencing our well-being, not only at work but also, surprisingly, outside of work. It ranks as the second most influential factor, after health, affecting our overall well-being and happiness.

Accidental managers, those who are promoted without any managerial training, are still commonplace. A staggering 82% of the 8 million UK managers are, in fact, untrained ‘accidental managers.’ There exists a misconception that being a great technician or the best salesperson naturally translates into being a great manager and leader. Conscious managers choose this profession and are often trained and experienced professionals in people management.

Research demonstrates that workplaces implementing effective people management practices are more than twice as likely to achieve the highest levels of job satisfaction compared to employers that do not employ these practices. Furthermore, good people management contributes to workplaces having staff with engagement levels three times higher and being three times more likely to experience lower levels of sickness absence. Greater job satisfaction also correlates with improved customer experiences, or in the case of the healthcare sector, higher patient satisfaction. Contrary to a common misconception, a reduction in performance does not necessarily lead to increased well-being. High-quality management practices not only enhance well-being but also improve performance, and both can occur simultaneously.

Social Environment in the Workplace

A great workplace culture and employee engagement work hand in hand. It is well-documented that when employees feel free to express themselves without fear of discrimination, they are happier and perform better. The research confirms that the social environment is an important driver for employee happiness. Shared activities such as joint workshops, training, and social events can improve employee well-being and performance. However, it’s not as easy as organising an office party, where half of the staff doesn’t want to be there. For the event to have a positive effect, there had to be a program of shared activities, positive worker attitudes to the activities, and facilitation external to the workgroup — such as a training workshop led by someone from outside of the workgroup.

In summary, finding happiness at work goes beyond office perks. It involves understanding the delicate balance between fair compensation, effective management, and a positive social environment. The research highlights the impact of these factors on job satisfaction, engagement, and overall well-being. Contrary to the belief that reduced performance leads to increased well-being, the study emphasises the symbiotic relationship between employee happiness and performance. A positive workplace culture and engaged employees contribute to a healthier and more productive work environment. As we rethink our approach to work, let’s strive for workplaces that not only excel in productivity but also prioritise the well-being and happiness of their employees.

University of East Anglia [https://www.uea.ac.uk/research/explore/what-makes-employees-happy]
BBC The Forum, What makes a good boss?[https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/w3ct4vc5]