For organizations, investing in employee happiness is just good business. Companies with happy employees outperform their competition by 20%. One out of every three employees would give up $5,000 in salary to be happier at work. And in the present era of job-hopping millennials and employee retention challenges, people do better work for longer when they’re happy.
But somewhere along the line, companies systematized the idea of happiness too much. We turned it into just another key performance indicator. Another rule to be enforced.
Attention companies: can we stop? We don’t need rules. We need common sense.
I understand policies are important. I know guidelines are necessary to set expectations and promote company culture.
But when I heard about this recent ruling declaring that “companies cannot require employees to be constantly happy at work,” I realized that something has gone horribly, horribly wrong with the way we’re thinking about employee happiness these days.
Happiness is the natural result of employees having a positive work environment.
Any policy that requires workplace positivity misses the point. Employee happiness isn’t something managers can just dictate. It’s something that occurs naturally when organizations give people the ingredients of a positive work experience.
Having been part of the labor market for over a decade, I’d like to offer these simple pieces of advice about the factors that might lead to greater employee happiness.
If an employee doesn’t know what to do, when to do it, and what success looks like, it’s nearly impossible to do a good job—let alone enjoy the work. We live in a world full of distraction. Without clear objectives, it’s too easy to fall down the various rabbit holes of modern life—web surfing, smartphone checking, our own wandering thoughts… the list goes on. Not only is this unproductive (bad), but it’s also anxiety-producing (worse). Focus opens the door for people to lose themselves in their work and discover the joy therein.
Few experiences are more inspiring and fulfilling than the feeling of getting better at something—even if just a tiny bit. It’s not about catapulting to mastery overnight. It’s about inching forward and making improvements each day. This is the ultimate dopamine drip. It’s what gets you out of bed in the morning. It’s gratifying, exhilarating, and essential for employee happiness.
Let’s face it: we all come to the office as a sanitized version of ourselves. It’s the “work” you. Snapping into work mode is normal and necessary for getting things done. But you’re still a human being. You need at least one or two trusted personal relationships at work to keep your sanity when the pressures on that “work” self start to creep too far into the “real” you. I’m not sure it’s possible to be happy at work without that outlet.
Understanding how today’s work plays into the overall narrative of your career enables you to soldier on when you encounter a challenge. It fuels your efforts and gives you a destination to push toward. Without a clear understanding of the big picture, work can feel like a waste of time, rather than an investment. But if you can at least imagine how your current responsibilities could contribute to larger long-term goals, happiness often isn’t far behind.
From the CEO on down to your frontline manager, employee happiness is largely tied to good leadership. Bad leadership makes it too easy for people to pass the buck, throw their hands up, and resort to grumbling about their bosses or executives when difficulties arise. Good leadership encourages employees to look inside themselves and ask, “what can I do better? How can I improve these circumstances?” That’s when happiness becomes truly personal— like it should be.
Happiness is being genuine
None of this is easy. The points I’ve covered here speak to some of the biggest challenges we face as both individuals and organizations. But I think it’s good for all of us to take a step back and look them squarely in the eye rather than being delusional or calculated about what leads to a productive, positive workforce. And if you’re mandating that people come to work happy, you are being delusional. When it comes to employee happiness, perhaps the answers aren’t in the handbook, but in our humanity.