The truth about employee happiness

Why age, job seniority, industry and company size can determine how happy your workers are.

These days, it’s no longer sufficient just to have an engaged workforce.

If organisations are to remain productive and profitable, it seems they would be better off including employee happiness as a key part of their business objectives, at least according to a recent global Robert Half study which examined the topic of workplace happiness in-depth.

The paper also broke down the concepts of “engagement” and “happiness”, explaining why both are inherently different at their core.  

Both words are often used synonymously, but the distinction is important.

The study defined happiness as something much deeper than engagement. It found that happiness is more than a fleeting moment of joy and gratification. Rather, it is an umbrella term that summarises “the quality of experience” in everyday work.

“Happiness doesn’t mean feeling great every moment of the day. We’re all aware of how our feelings can fluctuate over the course of the workweek or workday,” wrote the authors of the report.

“An employee who’s frustrated by the lack of progress on a current project can still be extremely happy on the job as long as that feeling of dissatisfaction is relatively short-lived.”

Higher levels of engagement, alongside productivity, are two benefits that emerge as a result of a satisfied workforce.

Nic Marks, a self-proclaimed happiness expert and founder of Happiness Works, breaks happiness down into three core emotions, namely enthusiasm, interest and contentment.

Enthusiasm, he says, is an “intense state” that propels people to create and seize opportunities. Interest helps individuals commit to tasks that are perhaps challenging in the short term but have medium-term or long-term benefits, while contentment allows staff to feel satisfied about their achievements and want to replicate those successes. 

“(Employees) feel more motivated and energised, help others more, set more challenging goals and want to stay in your job longer,” says Ilona Boniwell, CEO at Positran and head of the MSc in Applied Positive Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University.

So what are some factors affecting workplace happiness?

The study found that happiness levels can differ according to age, job seniority, industry and even company size.

In the UK, for example, employees aged over 35 are found to much more disillusioned than their younger colleagues. One in six said they were unhappy at work, more than twice the number of millennials indicating the same.

And while most Singaporeans revealed in a Randstad survey earlier this year that they still prefer working for established multinationals, it seems it is those in more intimate entities who are the happiest.

The contrast is stark. Over 75% of employees of companies with a headcount of less than 10 said they are happy, while staff at large organisations employing more than 10,000 people rated lowest with only 66% considering themselves to be contented.

In terms of industry, marketing and creative professionals, along with those in HR and legal, were found to be the most contented at work.

But true to the research’s definition of happiness, stress levels do not always correspond with happiness levels. Although the legal function, the report found, faced the most amount of stress, they were among the happiest.

On the flipside, finance and technology were the two sectors found to be experiencing the least amount of stress, but were among the unhappiest.

Based on these findings, it is apparent that a low-stress job; working in a prestigious organisation; or having a high-paying role in finance – three factors often associated with employee satisfaction – do not necessarily lead to positive feelings.

In fact, the report found that unquantifiable factors like meaningful work, sense of empowerment and feeling appreciated by bosses, can foster more positive emotions among employees.

These instances are rarer in large organisations than small ones, as several HR leaders shared at HRM Asia’s recent HR Transformation 4.0 Congress.

That’s because, as Er Chye Har, HR Director, Singapore Land Authority (SLA), explained at the congress, it’s easier for employees in smaller setups like SLA to push through new initiatives, effect change and have their voices heard.

“People are most invested in their work when they feel like they are part of something larger than themselves,” says entrepreneur and author Todd Henry.

“Happy workers understand why their tasks matter and how they connect to the overall objective.”

So while disengagement will always remain a concern, having a happiness framework seems to be a more well-rounded approach. It would not only create a culture of happiness across the entire organisation, but also address all employee pain points at the same time.

As Marks says: “Why would someone search for another job when they enjoy the one they have?”


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