The remote Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan used to elicit chuckles from outsiders for striving to improve its gross national happiness. Bhutan was unique because it measured progress by the happiness of its citizens rather than its economy’s gross domestic product (GDP). It’s now clear that Bhutan was ahead of the curve in pursuing this goal.
The Measure of Happiness
The World Happiness Report, first published in 2012, observes that, “increasingly, happiness is considered a proper measure of social progress and a goal of public policy.” This report ranks Canadians’ quality of life above average compared with other nations, yet we have the potential to do better. For this to happen, we must connect the quality of work with the overall quality of life. Evidence from EKOS Research Associate’s surveys reported in Redesigning Work show rising levels of job stress, work-life conflict and job dissatisfaction among Canadians over the past decade. These work problems detract from a person’s quality of life, measured by overall life satisfaction—a widely used indicator of happiness. Unless these job quality trends are reversed, employers will face mounting costs in terms of health benefits, absenteeism, turnover and dissatisfaction.
Happiness is Future-Building
Employees thrive in jobs that give them a sense of purpose and room to develop their potential. Researchers at University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship describe happy employees as “thriving.” As they explain, “we think of a thriving workforce as one in which employees are not just satisfied and productive but also engaged in creating the future—the company’s and their own.” Happy workers are more productive.
This is good for the economy and society. According to a research team at the University of Warwick, England, experiments on employee happiness and performance suggest that, “if well-being boosts people’s performance at work, this raises the possibility…of self-sustaining spirals between human productivity and human well-being.” This is called the Google Effect because the high-tech company’s efforts to raise employee satisfaction have greatly boosted productivity and generated innovation.
Happiness can be Contagious
Well-being is also positively contagious. Researchers at Gallup discovered that the well-being of each employee in a work team can enhance or reduce their fellow team members’ sense of well-being. This is a two-way relationship with each team member’s well-being dependent on how other team members are feeling on any given day. When collective well-being is high in a workplace, so is productivity, loyalty and employee health. With this in mind it’s concerning to see that the happiness of Canadians is declining.
Influencing the Happiness Meter
This EKOS evidence, presented in my new book, Redesigning Work, paints a nuanced picture of how work influences happiness. Happiness, it seems, is about more than money. Positive experiences at work improve one’s overall quality of life, while negative work experiences detract from it. Specifically, three out of four workers who are very satisfied with their life also are satisfied and engaged when it comes to their job. The same can be said for less than a third of workers with low life satisfaction. More than half of workers with high life satisfaction have manageable levels of work stress, compared with 30 per cent who are dissatisfied with their lives. The same goes for work-life balance. One in three of the high life satisfaction groups experienced an improvement in work-life balance over the past few years, whereas only 8 per cent of the dissatisfied group reported this positive change.
Pulling it All Together
In short, happiness depends on one’s overall quality of work-life. That means being satisfied with your job, able to balance your work with the rest of your life and having manageable work stress. All of these issues are already on the agenda of professionals in human resources, wellness and occupational health and safety. With an even more concerted effort to improve these aspects of work-life, we can expect big pay-offs to individuals, employers and society.