Vanessa King: The serious business of happiness at work

Vanessa King

There is a growing body of evidence that happiness is serious for business. According to the World happiness report 2013, published by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network in September 2013, happier people are more likely to perform well, adapt to change, help colleagues and be physically healthy, to name but a few beneficial outcomes.

Surely, though, personal happiness is the individual’s responsibility? If organisations have thought about happiness at all, it is from a policy, pay or benefits perspective, and has likely been focused on ensuring fairness and market competitiveness.

Is there a greater role for the employer in supporting employee happiness? I would argue strongly that there is.

First of all, what is happiness? It is a subjective, fleeting emotion, but there is more to it than that. Our evaluation of how happy we feel is influenced by our fulfilment, purpose and relationships. Workplaces can, therefore, be a potent contributor.

Organisations can also be a source of great unhappiness. For example, the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) Health and wellbeing at work report, published in May  2018, shows that stress is now a top cause of both short and long-term sickness absence. The causes of this stress not only include workload and change, but also management style and relationships at work.

Changes in the way we work, driven by technology and globalisation, mean that the boundaries between home and work have never been more blurred.

More than this, research shows that happiness is contagious. How happy we feel not only impacts those around us, but has a statistically significant ripple effect, as far as three degrees of separation, as found by Fowler and Christakis in their Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network report, published in December 2008. We impact people we have never met, and they impact us.

If people are unhappy at work, it will impact their families, their community contribution, and even how active they are as a citizen, as well as their physical health. For this reason, employee happiness, and that of contractors, gig workers and so on, is a primary corporate social responsibility.

So, what should employers be doing? First, education and capability building. Drawing on the growing body of scientific research in this area, organisations can help employees unpack happiness and learn important skills.

Second, and perhaps the greatest leverage point, is to integrate this science into management and leadership development. Work and wellbeing: a global perspective, published within the Global happiness policy report in February 2018, shows that an employee’s relationship with their line manager contributes significantly more to job satisfaction than pay.

Third, employers should use the science of happiness to inform the design of people management processes, benefits and even of work and workplaces, too.

Happiness does not mean the absence of stress or ill-health, but science offers ways to enable individuals and organisations to fulfil their potential and flourish. As Aristotle said: “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”

Vanessa King is workplace lead for social movement Action for Happiness and author of 10 keys to a happier living: a practical, evidence-based guide