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  • 20th Mar 2019

Making work happier

Taking all things together, how happy do you feel today?

Today is the International Day of Happiness. Since 2012, the day has celebrated the relevance of happiness for everyone across the world and the importance of recognising happiness as a goal of public policy. So, today, it is worth reflecting – what makes us happy?

In their classic work, Kahneman, Krueger, and colleagues find we are happiest when we are engaged in ‘intimate relations’ or spending time with friends. This seems a simple – if exhausting(!) – prescription to follow.

On the other hand, we are least happy spending time at work and commuting. And we’d probably rather be alone than spend time with our boss. Given that we spend 1,514 hours a year at work (and, by some estimates, a third of our adult lives), we think the workplace needs to do better.

So what can employers do to increase happiness?

Creating a happier workforce

Decades of research tells us that helping employees achieve mastery, autonomy and belonging is crucial for wellbeing and engagement. With these needs in mind, we suggest four low cost nudges to kick start a happier workforce.

Encouraging employees to reflect on their individual skills and competencies.

Self-expression is thought to activate a person’s intrinsic motivation, enabling them to bring their full selves to work, increasing satisfaction and happiness. A group of researchers asked new joiners to reflect on their individual identities during the onboarding process for a new job, asking them questions such as “what three words best describe you as an individual?” and  “what is unique about you that leads to your happiest times and best performance at work?”. They found that this self-expression exercise led to 50% better retention.

Give workers control over how they work.

Giving employees more choice and control over which hours they work improves work life balance and overall health. However, even if we can work flexibly we often choose not to, due to strong social norms and habits around working patterns and/or concerns about negative judgements from others. A forthcoming paper by Eliot Sherman finds that giving workers permission to work remotely, by explicitly asking them to ‘work remotely for as much as is sensible given your professional responsibilities,’ led to better work-life balance. Employee preference was working two days per week remotely. This builds on research that shows clear productivity gains, greater work satisfaction and lower job attrition when employees have the option to work from home. However flexible working is an area that must be treated with care when trying to foster greater wellbeing. For instance, some research suggests that longer stretches of working from home can result in employees feeling socially isolated.

Promoting a sense of belonging.

Research has repeatedly found that having good friends at work can buffer against negative life events and increase workplace satisfaction. Providing opportunities for employees to socially connect can foster a sense of belonging. The importance of employee participation in the form of non-hierarchical meetings first became apparent in research conducted by Kurt Lewin and Alex Bavelas in the 1940s. More recently, Wu and Paluck have begun replicating this work using modern analysis techniques with promising results related to increased job satisfaction, sense of control and more positive attitudes towards fellow colleagues.

Encouraging expressions of gratitude.

We know that recognition and expressions of gratitude can make a real difference. Receiving a ‘thank you’ can both boost our sense of social worth and motivate us to engage in further prosocial behaviours, such as helping others. Building moments of thanks into workplace routines can take the form of gratitude slots in meetings, sending positive feedback around the office, or even gifting employees with small financial rewards to be spent on others in their team.

These are small ideas that could be used to promote happiness in the workplace. But what would a systems-wide solution look like? At BIT, we think employees should be given more information on how their employer performs on metrics like employee happiness and satisfaction. A comparison website, similar to Glassdoor, that rates employers according to wellbeing metrics could radically shift the labour market – directing job seekers to employers who take happiness seriously.

On this International Day of Happiness, we want to remind employers that they play a central role in improving happiness. While this task might seem daunting, remember that small changes can make a big difference.

If you want to learn more about global happiness and wellbeing, read the latest Global Happiness and Wellbeing Policy Report 2019.

We would like to thank Alan Krueger, famed economist, trusted government adviser and beloved husband and father, for his contribution to the field of ‘subjective wellbeing’ and beyond. We know that his work will continue to inspire individuals and governments alike, ourselves included, to join in the pursuit of happiness.