Workplace happiness – improving the definition

Workplace happiness: Man looking worried at work

Workplace happiness is often defined around how the use of positive psychology has a beneficial effect on productivity. We don’t propose to challenge that assertion, because in business terms, workplace happiness has been shown time and again to lead to better business outcomes. What we do want to challenge, however, is the idea that workplace happiness is often defined as something owned by management as a tool used more or less effectively to squeeze more productivity out of workers. Now whilst to some that might seem quite a draconian statement, it is pretty much how many organisations define it and use it.

by Richard Bradford

So, we understand that happy workers are productive ones, that engaged people who buy into the organisation’s mission and vision are at the opposite end of the scale to demotivated counterparts who are prone to absenteeism and do the bare minimum to get by. We also understand that in the context of a management world driven to improve continually the yield and profitability of organisations to the benefit of shareholders, happiness at work is a concept which cycles around in the same way as other performance measures.

So what is our issue exactly, and why do we want to redefine workplace happiness?

Workplace happiness in the hands of the workers

It’s not so much what is, but rather where it is. Workplace happiness should not be something which is owned by the top tier of management, or by management theorists as an apparatus to be wheeled out to manipulate the masses. This all started with the pioneering research of Elton Mayo in the 1920s (and subsequent studies) which gave us the term “The Hawthorne Effect”. Mayo was conducting experiments on factory lighting levels and the effects lighting might have on productivity. It gradually became apparent that the increases in productivity had much less to do with the lighting levels, and much more to do with the interest management or the researchers were showing in the workers’ wellbeing (or workplace happiness).

If workplace happiness initiatives equate to a bag of management tools which can be opened up and used whenever profits take a drop or a new CEO steps in and needs to prove their worth, that also means that the toolbag can be closed and put away at other times when there is a need to save the cost of these extra initiatives and optimise profitability. Such tools (which also include staff training, gym memberships, enhancements to pension schemes, internal promotions and advancements) are often used in fits and bursts over 5 or 10-year cycles to invest and boost profits or cut costs according to conditions.

Surely though, you could argue, the one thing that everyone deserves throughout their working lives, regardless of the state of the economy or the current status of the organisation, is workplace happiness. This should be everyone’s human right, right? It shouldn’t be something that is ignored whenever the going seems to be good (and it’s not required) or bad (and we can’t afford it).

Workplace happiness rooted in working relationships

The Maydays are very lucky to be some pretty happy external facilitators who are frequently brought in to either directly or indirectly have a positive effect on workplace happiness. We see a huge transformation in people during the time we have together with them, and they feel it too. The single biggest benefit we hear is that it transforms people’s working relationships. When you are in a positive, upbeat space you are more generous with people: with the time you have for them, with the attention you pay to them, and with the way you listen carefully to them. Working relationships – that critical frequent interplay between you and your colleagues – are often what makes work a pleasure or a chore.

If you’re not sure you ever experience a sense of delight with your colleagues, your best glimmer of it may well be when you come back to work after your longest holiday of the year. Now the feeling may last only a week, a day, or even an hour or two, but it’s that great feeling of everyone being a fresh but familiar face. You momentarily forgot the baggage you might associate with a person. They’re asking about your holiday and they seem genuinely interested. They’re listening to you, and you’re listening to them as you would a total stranger (when you’re on your best behaviour). The feeling of being listened to, being valued and being heard, even for an instant, is sufficient to recharge your batteries and make you feel positive for much longer – maybe a day or more. As the Hawthorne experiments showed, the higher up the hierarchy the person who listens to you, says yes to your thoughts and utterances, and shows commitment to you as a person, the happier you become.

Workplace happiness and your school days

Going to work is also often modelled psychologically on our experiences of going to school. It’s another setting in which lots of random people come together with a need to complete a task, do a thing, generate work output. Just like at school, we are rarely in a position to choose our colleagues at work. So much is made of team-based analogy at work because our team activities at school were often the source of our biggest feelings of positivity and accomplishment. Being in a sports team at school was often the result of a choice. The team had shared objectives and hopefully achieved success, and felt the emotion of winning as part of a group. Many people though, have never had that experience – there were many more who didn’t make the team as did. It is these people – the majority – that need to be given the opportunity to experience happiness at work that they maybe never felt the first time around at school.

Happiness leads to a vast array of outcomes at work

Happiness is not a luxury. It’s not frivolous. It’s not touchy feely hippy futility. It is a right. It is something which everyone should be able to derive from within work, and not just at the weekend.

Saying that workplace happiness leads to greater productivity is something of a catch all statement. The component parts of what can lead to overall productivity are also noteworthy. Workplace happiness through the improvement in interpersonal connection leads to team cohesion, group mind, intuitiveness and creativity. This leads to innovation and resourcefulness.

With a little top down empowerment, and the resulting bottom up engagement, the scene is set for all sorts of transformative things to happen.

In improvisation terms, we talk a lot about helping people to be in the present, being focussed, alert and very much ‘in the room’. When you have an organisation full of people who are totally present, the impossible starts to seem a lot more achievable.

Taking control of workplace happiness

Workplace happiness is something that everyone should own and everyone should have access to. For that to happen, reference to ‘workplace happiness’ should be found embedded in the values of every organisation. It should be there alongside ‘putting the customer first’, ‘working as a team’, ‘communicating candidly’ and all the other mantras which encourage these values to be nurtured, encouraged, upheld and hallowed. The empowerment then comes from managers supporting all initiatives which adhere to company values, including the value of workplace happiness itself.

Would you like to be a workplace happiness guinea pig?

We are looking for organisations who would like to take up our workplace happiness challenge. We are ready and willing to provide a sequence of Improvisation for Workplace Happiness sessions to the right kind of organisation at low or no cost in order to test our hypothesis and create a case study for further analysis. If you are interested in participating, please contact us to find out more.

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