What makes someone happy at work? It’s a big question that many employers, who want to do the best for their team, struggle to find the right answer for. But is it in fact the wrong question to be focusing on?
According to Dr Martin Seligman, it might be. In his 'wellbeing theory' he asserts that "positive emotion [what he calls 'happiness'] is a subjective variable, defined by what you think and feel. Meaning, relationships, and accomplishment [key elements in his well-being theory] have both subjective and objective components, since you can believe you have meaning, good relations, and high accomplishment and be wrong, even deluded. The upshot of this is that wellbeing cannot exist just in your own head: wellbeing is a combination of feeling good as well as actually having meaning, good relationships, and accomplishment."
Dr Seligman's rejection of eternal happiness calls to mind Robert Nozick's famous 'pleasure machine' thought experiment. Most people, if given the option to be plugged into a machine that would stimulate the brain's pleasure centres and give them non-stop euphoria, would choose to not stay plugged in. It instinctively feels wrong.
In other words, we don't want to be happy all the time. We want to be satisfied. To have a sense of wellbeing.
But this is all quite personal. Why should employers help their workers go on what seems to be a deeply introspective, individual journey?
Well, according to a recent study conducted by the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, improved worker wellbeing is strongly linked to improved profitability, productivity and quality of output or services. Employees with a strong sense of professional wellbeing simply do their jobs better.
Unfortunately, there is no specific combination of things that will improve every employee's wellbeing, but Acas identified 11 key factors that can improve workplace morale. Employee wellbeing depends on:
- Autonomy. This means workers can make some key decisions about how to do their jobs. It doesn't mean they are left to do whatever they want, though.
- Variety. This is the spice of life, and at work, that means having days that vary in both workload and tasks.
- Significance. Employees need to feel like their job is important to the rest of the company or even society. This one should be pretty easy, since there wouldn't be a job to do if it weren't crucial to company performance.
- Clarity. Workers who know what is expected of them and how well they're doing are far more satisfied with work. Think about improving job descriptions, inductions and appraisals with this in mind.
- Support. While employees want autonomy, they also need supportive supervision. Ensure your line managers are adequately trained on how to provide this, and create an environment where employees actively support each other.
- Socialising. Essentially, employees shouldn't work in silos. They should have positive interactions with managers, colleagues and, where appropriate, clients.
- Opportunity. Workers need to be able to use and develop their personal and professional skills. A varied workload will help here, but so will extra training and responsibilities.
- Physical security. This is so obvious, it often goes without saying. But employees need to feel safe. If they feel threatened or scared to carry out tasks, everything suffers. Make sure your safety equipment is up-to-date and in good condition.
- A future. We all know many businesses need to be lean to survive these days, so it might not be possible to guarantee job security. But if workers feel like they have job security - or skills they can transfer to another job if necessary - their wellbeing will improve.
- Fairness. Employees need to feel that everyone is being treated fairly. That means everyone is treated with respect. Bullies must be dealt with, and disciplinary and grievance procedures must be in place. And employees shouldn't be afraid to use them.
- Remuneration. Obviously, workers need to be paid. There is a correlation between higher pay and better work, but even more important is fairness. Employees need to be able to survive on their pay, and they need to be paid the same as other workers on their level.
It is important to remember that small improvements in just a few of these areas can be enough to make a difference to employee well-being and company performance.
Ultimately, it may be less about what employers do and more about the attitudes they have to their employees. As Richard Branson explains, "Much like the word 'entrepreneur', the idea of employee well-being was an alien concept when Virgin was in its infancy. While we didn’t openly discuss 'wellbeing', the health and happiness of our people was always top of mind... New and exciting innovations and technologies have come along to shape our approach to employee well-being, but our attitude has always remained the same - it’s our people who drive our success, so we strive to maintain a healthy and happy culture, and create environments in which everyone can flourish."