Perception versus reality: Effectively measuring the happiness of the workforce

Measuring happiness perception

Need to know:

  • Research increasingly shows a disconnect between how happy employers believe their staff to be and how employees actually feel on a daily basis.
  • Some leaders are too far removed from the day-to-day running of their organisations, meaning that issues affecting employee happiness are overlooked.
  • To manage workplace happiness, employers need to engage in regular assessments, as annual engagement survey results can be outdated and reactive.

No employer likes to think of its staff as being unhappy. However, in many cases, the perception of a contented workforce is far from the reality.

For example, according to a study published by Reward Gateway in September 2017, half (51%) of employers feel they show their workforce that they care about wellbeing. However, only 14% of employees agree that their organisation does enough to show this concern.

Furthermore, in a survey of 7,000 office-based employees conducted by Arlington Research in October 2018, as many as 97% stated that they feel frustrated at work. The study, commissioned by office supply organisation Staples for the report Vocation frustration: Europe’s office workers on the brink, also found that 89% of UK office staff constantly think about switching jobs.

The effects of unhappiness

Difficulties with retention and recruitment are high on the list of negative outcomes caused by unhappiness in the workplace.

Nick Shaw, managing director at assessment and analytics organisation 10xPsychology, says: “On a practical level, staff are more likely to leave, which will lead to additional training and recruitment costs. Former employees who have had an unhappy experience may also dissuade prospective candidates.”

However, it is not all about turnover. Shaw points out that an unhappy workforce also means high levels of disengagement among those remaining at the organisation.

“Employees who are unhappy in the workplace will not be motivated in their role,” he says. “Creativity and productivity will therefore decrease as staff become disengaged from their job and look to get the working day over with as quickly as possible.”

Gaining feedback

There are many different factors influencing the happiness of employees, and not all of them are within the employer’s control. For example, a January 2018 survey of 1,037 managers by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) revealed that the approach of Brexit has caused 25% of managers to report a decreased sense of job security.

It is, therefore, difficult to predict how various factors, both internal and external, will affect the happiness of a workforce. This only serves to highlight the importance of going to the source and asking employees, rather than shaping strategy based on market trends or generalised assumptions.

However, even those organisations that do make sure to canvass the opinions of their staff may be at risk of going about it in a way that creates a disconnect between their perception and the daily reality of their workforce.

Dr Autumn Krauss, principal scientist, human capital management research at software provider SAP SuccessFactors, explains: “[Employers] only ask once a year, as part of an annual employee engagement survey, so the results are outdated by the time they are reported.”

Often, these surveys are not only too far apart, but also fail to recognise that wellbeing includes both work and life elements, which have increasingly permeable boundaries.

In addition, Krauss believes typical assessments do not go far enough in what they ask of employees. “Only lagging indicators of wellbeing are considered, such as healthcare claims, absenteeism, turnover, instead of collecting data about how employees are feeling and thinking before these outcomes occur,” she says.

Too far removed

Many leaders are separated from the day-to-day running of their organisation and can, therefore, overlook the stresses and strains their people face.

“Even when leaders are hands-on, there is still a risk that they will overestimate how happy their people are, especially if staff are unwilling to talk about their problems or frustrations,” Shaw explains.

Krauss agrees: “The consideration of employee wellbeing is often relegated to only the benefits group, with leaders not aware of or interested in the topic, because they do not understand the impact it has on important organisational outcomes.”

However, in the long term, poor wellbeing can lead to burnout, disengagement, counterproductive work behaviours and complete withdrawal from the organisation. In addition, if one employee is unhappy, it can affect their team and, in turn, the broader culture of the organisation.

Reading the warning signs

So, how can employers tell if they have previously undetected problems with the happiness of their staff? There are a number of warning signs, according to Shaw.

“Alarm bells should start ringing as soon as managers see any signs that employee engagement is dropping,” he says. “If the team has less motivation on projects or a lack of enthusiasm in their roles, managers should take note and think about how they can improve the happiness of the team.”

A reduction of engagement or motivation will often manifest in changes to office dynamics, such as a shift in energy levels, issues with communication or a difference in atmosphere. These elements are subtle, but managers involved in the daily running of a workplace should be able to recognise them as signs that morale may have dipped.

Red flags might include employees showing up late for work, calling in sick or being physically but not mentally present. This can negatively impact team morale and performance. Other signs include an increased level of irritability, interpersonal conflict or aggression.

An individual approach

Effectively managing workplace happiness requires proactive, regular assessment, rather than remedial action. It is also critical for individual managers to cultivate an insight regarding their own teams, as they are in the best position to address issues affecting wellbeing.

“By knowing the different attitudes and personalities in the organisation, [employers] will not only understand how each employee expresses happiness, but also, and more importantly, what makes them happy,” concludes Shaw.

“This way, the organisation can tailor its approach to each individual employee, rather than taking a blanket approach. The result is a business that understands what really drives its staff and responds in a way that appeals to each employee.”