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Is workplace happiness an unalienable right?

Thomas Jefferson believed the pursuit of happiness was an unalienable right. I believe that too – although I have always understood happiness to be a very personal state. What then of the concept of workplace happiness? Is that also an unalienable right?

Lansons hosted an event last week to explore this topic. Our friend, organisational pyschologist and guest speaker – Hazel Carter-Showell from CarterCorson explained that happiness is “reductive”. In other words it means different things to different people.

Although my colleagues at Lansons may occasionally describe me as curmudgeonly that’s not why I have some reservations about the concept of workplace happiness.

I have always believed that workers have the right to be treated with dignity and respect by their employers. Good employers will invest the time and energy to create engaging workplaces. Workplaces which have a strong sense of purpose and a shared understanding of each person’s role in achieving their objectives.

Can people be happy doing that? I think so. If the work has meaning and people feel they are playing their part. Is happiness an essential element? Possibly not. Possibly no more than a by-product.

So does that mean that the pursuit of workplace happiness is a waste of time?

Not according to the workforce of the UK. Working with Opinium (the fabulous research business and part of the Lansons group) we commissioned some research about what employees in the UK think about happiness.

Here are just a few topline figures from the research:

9 out of 10 (89%) UK office workers think it’s important to enjoy work with half saying it is very important and 2 in 5 saying it is quite important.
Almost 6 in 10 office workers say they are happy in their role right now, while just a fifth say they are unhappy (18%).
Business leaders like Richard Branson also see the value. In a recent article he suggests that “Happy employees are central to the success of a business”.

And maybe there is some further evidence that workplace happiness might be a worthwhile objective in its own right. CIPD research on sustainable employee engagement found evidence of employees faking engagement in order to keep their roles with a possible corollary to work place stress and possible mental health issues.

Research has shown that being happy has long term health benefits. Could an increase in workplace happiness tackle workplace stress? Could it help employees be more resilient to the pressures of the modern workplace?

Clearly there is a lot for employers to consider. What are some of the practical steps they can take?

Hazel suggests taking a broader look at the working environment to remove any triggers for stress (like noise). Unsurprisingly difficult commutes are also a barrier to workplace happiness. Does this strengthen the case for flexible working practices?

There are also some wider things for employers and employees consider. Hazel talks about “training your elephant” (the elephant being your sub-conscious) through the use of meditation and cognitive therapy. While this may feel to some employers like a faddish distraction it’s not hard to imagine enlightened employers seeing the benefits of these approaches and finding ways to apply them in their workplaces.

And of course individual employees should take responsibility for their own happiness. This may be partly through finding room for pleasure and gratification (cue raised eyebrows). Hazel explains that “pleasures are delights with clear sensory and strong emotional components” while “gratifications are activities that engage you fully, draw on your strengths and allow you to lose self-consciousness”.

So does that mean UK workplaces can expect to see more group hugs and team building? Or perhaps more working from home? Possibly. Interestingly Hazel points out that acts of unprompted generosity and kindness to colleagues have a lasting positive effect for days (long after the hang over from the team night out has worn off).

So in summary, I still believe happiness is driven as much by the circumstances of your personal life as by anything which happens in the workplace. Do I think workplaces can remove barriers to happiness through effective employee engagement, creating great working environments and enhanced working practices? Absolutely.

If you would like to discuss any aspects of this blog post please contact Scott McKenzie, Director, Change and Employee Engagement at scottm@lansons.com or on 0207 294 3611.