A number of companies claim that they care about the happiness and well-being of their employees. But is this just to tempt prospective employees, or does it make good business sense?

It turns out that happiness at work is important – numerous studies have found that happier people are more successful. But unfortunately how to create an uplifting work culture isn’t straightforward. Free coffee and higher salaries usually won’t cut it. 

Happy Employees are Better Employees

Google - happiness at work matters

Quotes from the report Healthy People = Healthy Profits Source: http://www.dwp.gov.uk/docs/hwwb-healthy-people-healthy-profits.pdf

Researchers from the University of Warwick discovered that people who are happy at work are roughly 12% more productive. In a fascinating and super funny TEDxBloomington talk, Shawn Anchor, author of The Happiness Advantage, argues that while we may think success will bring us happiness, the scientifically-validated truth is that happiness brings us more success.

When quantifying the benefits of a happy company, Shawn found that sales can increase by 37%, productivity 31%, and accuracy on tasks by 19%. Happy employers also have a better quality of life and are usually healthier, which results in reduced levels of stress, less sick leave and lower attrition.

You might think providing perks such as free food, subsidising gym memberships, and providing massages in the office would be enough. Some companies, such as Google, Red Bull and Facebook, will even transform the work environment to encourage their employees to have fun and relax at work.

But the formula for job satisfaction isn’t so simple. It’s not a matter of perks in, happiness out. While various benefits are helpful in attracting people to join the company they aren’t so good at improving company performance. No wonder Google is so keen to stress that it is passion, not perks that leads to their success.

Most people believe that having a higher salary would make them happier, but Princeton University researchers have found that this link is mainly an illusion. People who are on higher salaries are relatively satisfied, but they also tend to be more tense, and they don’t spend any more time enjoying the good things in life than those on lower salaries.

What makes us happy at work?

Alexander Kjerulf, one of the world’s leading experts on happiness at work and advisor the likes of Ikea, Lego, Oracle, Tata, and Pfizer, says that results and relationships are the most important factors for ensuring people are happy at work.

What does this mean? We need to feel like we’re good at our job and achieving something meaningful; we need to like the people we’re working with; and we need to feel like we are accepted for who we are in the workplace. When we have that we’re happy at work. When we don’t; we’re miserable.

Gallup research backs him up – perks are less important than engagement, which happens when staff feel they are contributing to something significant. Of the workplace benefits Gallup studied, flexible working hours yielded the strongest relationship to overall wellbeing among employees. Employees who were engaged and had plenty of flexibility have a reportedly 44% higher wellbeing than disengaged employees that have very little or no flexibility in their working hours. 

How can you foster a happy work culture? Here are our 10 top tips:

1.      Hire happy people.

As Pret a Manger says: “You can’t hire someone who can make sandwiches and teach them to be happy…So we hire happy people and teach them to make sandwiches”. Hire someone for their attitude and then give them the training and support they need to develop their skills.

2.      Stop negative behaviour.

Negative emotions are just as contagious as positive emotions, perhaps even more so. Gossiping, rumours and unnecessary venting can spread across the company like a cancer if they are ignored, so it’s worth addressing and resolving the causes for negativity as soon as possible.

3.      Celebrate successes.

Start every meeting by acknowledging the recent achievements of individuals in the team. This will transform the tone of the meeting, making them more productive and motivating. Publically recognizing and celebrating the successes of everyone in the team will make employees feel more valued and inspired, whilst encouraging everyone to share each others’ achievements instead of feeling in competition with one another.  

4.      Create a sense of ownership across the team.

Encourage employees to take ownership of their work and feel like they contribute directly to the success of the business. Why? When we take ownership, we don’t want to fail, produce something of poor quality or dissatisfy the customer. Taking ownership of your work therefore makes us feel more engaged and motivated, happier completing your day-to-day tasks and prouder of our team’s achievements.

One way to inspire this feeling is to ensure each member of the team is familiar with what the others are doing and allow them to offer their ideas on how to improve the product, service or process.

5.      Keep your team informed.

Senior management usually have a pretty clear picture of what’s going on with the business, but sometimes they forgot to share these insights with the rest of the team. It pays to take the time to spread this information so that everyone is in the know. Employees who understand the business objectives and how their roles fits in will be more motivated as they see themselves as a valuable part of the organisation.

6. Surprise them with random acts of kindness.

When was the last time you surprised a co-worker with a cup of coffee, or the entire office with a variety of snacks?  Scientific research shows that the random element of these acts really matters. The pleasure/reward centre of the brain is less active when we know something good (such as a monthly bonus) is coming, but can be stimulated up to three times as much when the act is unexpected.

7.      Encourage people to step out of their comfort zones.

Nobody wants to do one specific task over and over again until they quit, retire or die. Don’t be afraid to grant your employees new responsibilities—it will allow them to develop their skills and confidence whilst making them feel more valuable to the team.

8.      Don’t try to cover up the bad news.

In any business you are sometimes going to have bad news. Whether it’s to do with the whole company or an individual in the team, employees need to be dealt with in a straightforward and respectful manner. There’s no point keeping them in the dark, rumours will inevitably pop up and they’ll almost always be worse than the reality.

9.      Don’t “lowball” on salary.

Money isn’t everything, but it’s still pretty important. When you’re offering a position to someone the salary matters a lot, but after they’ve joined the business the motivation usually shifts to other factors, as mentioned above. However, if an employee thinks their salary isn’t fair compared to industry standards, they will feel underappreciated and unhappy. The cost of losing an employee is much higher than you’d think, and it’s certainly more than the amount you save by paying them less than they deserve.  

10.  Enforce Sensible Working Hours

Remember the good ol’ days when people worked 9-5pm, 5 days a week? Those days are long gone. According to enterprise mobility company Good Technology, 80% of people continue working after leaving the office and the average amount of “extra work” occurring outside normal working hours is seven extra hours per week – nearly another full day. That’s right, most of us are essentially working 6 days a week.

Why? Thanks to digital technology we have the ability to work anywhere: in our beds, at a coffee shop, on a plane. Sure it's convenient, but then working from anywhere easily turns into working from everywhere, anytime, because we can’t switch off. Unfortunately, it’s very unlikely that longer hours are translating to increased productivity. In fact, it usually leads to exhaustion, anxiety and inefficiency.  

Maybe it is no longer feasible to ban employees from checking their emails outside of working hours (although wouldn’t that be a hoot!) but it might be worthwhile encouraging your team to take their lunch breaks and dedicate weekends and time after-hours to relaxing, recharging, spending time with family and friends, and pursuing their own interests. Don’t reward people for working longer hours, reward them for increasing their productivity within the working hours.

Making your staff happy is not about expensive benefits, it’s about offering them meaningful work, appreciation and autonomy. What businesses can’t afford to do that?


Written by Izzy Griffin-Smith

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