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The pursuit of happiness (at work)

Research by Central YMCA shows employee happiness decreases in the workplace

Stephanie Harper, Senior HR Projects Manager at Law At Work (LAW) recently attended LAW’s HR Directors strategic event. One of the key topics was the importance of happiness at work. She gives her take on how and why to inspire happiness at work, what the business benefits are and where the responsibility lies in an organisation.

A lot of people in the UK aren’t what you’d call happy at work. They’re at work because, quite simply, they have to be. The pressure to buy a home, provide for a family and the ideology that is consumerism today puts a lot of pressure on people to earn, earn and earn more. Against this background, why should employers take an interest in the happiness and wellbeing of their workforce? In short, all the research tells us that it makes good business sense and ultimately saves the employer money. So the real question is can employers afford not to take an interest?

Last year the Health and Safety Executive released figures showing that nine million days of work were lost to stress. Mental health charity Mind estimates that work-related anxiety and stress costs the economy £26 billion each year. To put that figure into perspective, the UK deficit in Quarter 4 2015 was £32.7 billion. Labour turnover costs are another consideration for employers. The Oxford Economics and Income Protection Providers reported in 2014 that when lost productivity is taken into account, the average fee for replacing a staff member is £30,614.

Financial loss due to ill health is a problematic scenario and has the potential to create legal complications if it starts to affect the ability of a business to operate effectively. If stress increases, productivity is reduced and more stress is put on the remaining employees, creating an economy that effectively cannibalises itself.

Satisfaction inspires productivity
The value to business of employee job satisfaction can’t be underestimated and should be a strategic priority across all parts of an organisation. A recent study by economists at the University of Warwick found that happiness led to a 12% spike in productivity, while unhappy workers proved to be 10% less productive.

Here’s a real life example of happiness at work in action:
I recently stayed at a busy hotel in Leeds. During the night the fire alarm was set off by a guest. The hotel staff were incredibly apologetic. A while later, a second alarm blared. Amazingly the hotel staff again apologised, explaining that the second incident was their fault when resetting the alarm – so refreshingly honest.

The next morning I overheard one of the waiting staff query why his suited colleague had come to help clear the tables. She explained she fancied coming front of house for a change and saw he was really busy clearing tables. He looked pleased with this act of kindness and the two proceeded to clear the tables in half the time. The chef then walked over to my table, smiled and asked me how my breakfast was.

The point of this tale is that I, the consumer, was happy throughout my stay. Without exception all of the staff looked happy and as a result were giving discretionary effort – exceeding the role of their job description. Happiness and productivity are cyclical; I will return to that particular hotel next time I am in Leeds.

Encourage a positive culture
To create a positive, inclusive work culture across any organisation – not just hotels or the hospitality industry – a number of fairly simple principles can be encouraged:

  • Human connections – Relationships are the most important overall contributor to happiness. The hotel staff came across as a team despite different levels and different ‘departments’.
  • Employees that do things for others – The ‘suited colleague’ at the hotel gave her time to help her colleague clear the tables. Small acts of unwarranted kindness can go a long way.
  • Healthy body and mind – More and more evidence shows physical exercise helps with mental wellbeing.  Encourage it, get outside, sleep, eat well and meditate.
  • Employee mindfulness – Encourage employees to be mindful and aware. It can do wonders for wellbeing in all areas of work and stops us dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.
  • Educating employees – Learning affects wellbeing in lots of positive ways. It exposes us to new ideas and ways of thinking; it keeps people interested. Ever thought of offering yoga classes at lunchtime?

These principles needn’t apply to just senior management, but rather across the organisation as a whole. While in danger of sounding patronising, helping employees to help themselves is a very effective way of overcoming a top-down ‘forced happiness’ approach, which may have the exact opposite effect of what you are trying to achieve.

Every business and every worker is different. You may have to skin a few cats to find a way that works for your business, but once you have fewer hours will be lost, output will improve and the number of smiling, productive employees will increase.