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Some happy talk about the workplace

Measuring happiness is fraught with problems, not least because it’s a difficult idea to define both as a general concept and how it relates to the economy and to work. Lord Richard Layard, programme director of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics argues in his book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, that when we track happiness at an economic level, we discover that people don’t appear to have become happier over the past five decades.

A 2012 article from McKinsey argues that there are three factors that define levels of happiness and hence wellbeing at work; belonging, social connection, and a sense of purpose. Wise organisations will pursue these goals and not only because they care for the wellbeing of workers.

A 2016 study and review of literature by Danica Bakotić at the University of Split concluding that “job satisfaction determines organisational performance, rather than organisational performance determining job satisfaction.”

A 2019 report titled Wellbeing in the Workplace from The Myers-Briggs Company explored the most important factors determining individual happiness and wellbeing  at work with 10,000 people. It found that relationships are seen as the leading contributor to workplace wellbeing, followed by meaning, accomplishments engagement and positive emotions.

Mental health

Happiness and job satisfaction are essential for our mental health.  The British philosopher Bertrand Russell once famously said in a short book he wrote in 1930 called The Conquest of Happiness that “one of the symptoms of approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important and that to take a holiday would bring all kinds of disaster. If I were a medical man, I should prescribe a holiday to any patient who considered his work important.”

It may have been an identifiable problem in the 1930s, but such attitudes are now so widespread and so enabled by technology that, burnout has been included in the World Health Organization’s 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon.

Problems like overwork, burnout and work separation anxiety can be insidious, creeping up without warning. Employees may not realise they’re suffering, so managers and those in charge of workplace wellbeing should receive the right training to spot the signs and offer support when required.

Common signs stem from employees struggling to maintain a healthy work-life balance and becoming stressed to the point they may cancel holidays at the last-minute, work from home late at night or insist on coming into work when unwell. They do this even if they are aware that spending too much time at work is counter-productive, as it can result in us ignoring our personal development, our health and actually end up decreasing our productivity by at least a third.

What all this means is that happiness and good mental health are key organisational concerns, both on a practical level for the commercial good of the business, and an ethical level too.

The implications are profound for workplace designers and managers. We understand how happiness is bound up in our relationships with others, the meaning of our lives and the fostering of positive emotions. Each of these factors and others related to them should be – in some way – a goal we set ourselves when creating great places to work.

People should enter the office with a smile just as big as the one they have when they leave.

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