The Psychology Behind Workplace Happiness

Employee happiness breeds productivity, creativity, and innovation leading to higher profits, lower turnover, and more growth.

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The Psychology Behind Workplace Happiness

Anyone who has been in the workforce for a significant amount of time knows that not all jobs are created equal. Every job has a unique set of pros and cons. For example, while your high school job at the ice cream shop didn’t pay well, it was low stress and came with free banana splits. Your office job is stressful, but it pays for your mortgage and your kid’s soccer tournaments.

While a job that brings both happiness and a good salary can seem like a pipe dream, these things aren’t mutually exclusive. Jobs can and should cultivate a sense of purpose and satisfaction in a person’s life, and smart employers work to make that a reality in their organizations. In fact, employee happiness is one of the essential ingredients in a healthy enterprise.

“I never went into business just to make money – but I found that if I have fun, the money will come. Often, I ask myself, is my work fun, and does it make me happy? I believe that the answer to that is more important than fame or fortune. If it stops being fun, I ask why? If I can’t fix it, I stop doing it.” ~ Richard Branson (Founder, Virgin Group)

Happy employees are more productive, have fewer sick days, and contribute to more innovation across the board. Happy employees are 12% more productive, and businesses with happy employees outpace their competitors by 20%. Here is how to make your workplace happier based on recent psychological research.

What makes people happy at work?

There are many strategies that businesses can implement to make their employees happier on a superficial level:

  • A hefty raise would do the trick.
  • Free lunches are great, too.
  • Offering a 4-day workweek would definitely add some pep to everyone’s step.

The problem is that although many of these improvements would make workers happier, happiness would fade over time. Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School did a study in 2010 that showed that money did make people happier, but only up to the threshold of $75,000 ($100,534 in today’s dollars), enough to live comfortably. After that, their happiness was not elevated. So if money doesn’t make people happier, what does?

Psychological safety

Have you ever worked for an uptight boss? If so, you likely felt like you were walking on eggshells around them, always trying to read their expressions and figure out what they were thinking. The reason for your discomfort was a lack of psychological safety.

Psychological safety is the feeling that you can be yourself without negative consequences at work and is one of the top drivers of employee happiness. Examples of psychological safety include:

  • Being able to give your boss your honest opinion
  • Feeling at ease, sharing ideas that aren’t fully formed
  • Taking risks at work

Research shows us that psychological safety has many benefits, including boosting a company’s agility and innovation, significant factors in a post-COVID world. Unfortunately, psychological safety isn’t as commonplace as it should be. A McKinsey Global Survey conducted during the COVID pandemic showcases that few business leaders actually implement the positive behaviors that support psychological safety.

Recent psychological research finds that a positive team climate is the best way to increase psychological safety in organizations. A positive team climate is where team members:

  • Value each other’s work
  • Care about one another’s feelings
  • Collaborate on how to best perform tasks and projects.

Ultimately, the best and most psychologically “safe” teams are those that build trust and identify shared goals and priorities from the get-go.

Positive leadership

When someone smiles at you, it’s challenging not to smile back, right? There’s a reason for this phenomenon. Happiness is contagious. A multi-year study of Genesis Health System found that leaders who project happiness help their employees feel happier. This happy feeling can also spread throughout an organization perpetually.

Moreover, emotional contagion leads to higher productivity and better planning among teams. Researchers James K. Hazy and Richard E. Boyatzis found that “through emotional contagion, a proto-organizing state emerges within the population, and this is the mechanism that enables coordinated action, including rational planning activities and the implementation of action plans.”

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Happiness interventions

Happiness is an emotion that everyone feels differently. It can stem from external factors like your boss telling you that you nailed your presentation or internal factors like your sense of gratitude for the things that you have. While happiness can’t be forced, it can be cultivated with modern interventions.

New research published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology led by Ad Bergsma of Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands looked at the data collected from 61 happiness training studies from 1972–2019. These studies showed trends in employee happiness based on specific interventions.

  • Physical activity interventions—Physical activities like walking and yoga are not only good for workers, they make them happier too. Physical activity campaigns in the workplace positively affected employees’ happiness. The results were most impressive for a 13-week program focused on muscle relaxation, strengthening, coordination, and flexibility.
  • Ergonomics interventions—One study found that a 5-week ergonomics training course on sitting, posture, and chair alignment improved job satisfaction.
  • Psychological interventions—Training was evidence that mindfulness, cognitive-behavioral, resiliency, and other emotional training programs increased employee well-being.
    • An 8-week training in work-family balance coping and positive parenting skills increased job satisfaction.
    • A 5-week resiliency training program boosted employees’ sense of purpose and job satisfaction.
  • Environmental interventions— Training that tackles team communication and management skills showed were beneficial for employee well-being.
  • Multi-component interventions—When it comes to happiness interventions, the researchers found that focussing on one intervention at a time is better than multiple programs.
  • Others—Other interventions such as music therapy increased workers’ job satisfaction.

Ultimately, the researchers said their analysis showed a “focus on cognitive reframing, goal setting, laughter yoga, practicing retrospective sources of happiness, mood awareness training, and meditation were most beneficial to employees’ happiness.”

The bottom line

Most people spend more time at work than they do with their own families. As such, employees want to work somewhere that makes them happy, and businesses would be foolish not to recognize employee happiness’ role in profitability. Employee happiness breeds productivity, creativity, and innovation leading to higher profits, lower turnover, and more growth. However, superficial things like a higher paycheck don’t make workers happier long term.

When workers feel that they are working towards a common goal with other like-minded colleagues, their satisfaction soars.

Psychological safety, specifically a positive team climate, is one of the main drivers of employee happiness. When workers feel that they are working towards a common goal with other like-minded colleagues, their satisfaction soars. Additionally, positive leadership can promote the happiness contagion effect in workers.

When leaders present themselves positively, smile, and say positive things to their workers, their workers tend to feel lighter, a feeling that spreads across departments.

You can build a more successful workplace

Finally, many happiness interventions based on psychological studies can positively impact employees’ mental health and well-being. Psychical activity, ergonomic, psychological, and environmental interventions are especially beneficial.

Try to take advantage of these tips to build a happier, healthier, and more successful workplace in 2022.

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