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Are happy employees productive employees?

Every night at 9pm I rate my day from 1-5 and add a note. The rating stands in for what my mood was like that day, and the note gives me a chance to explain why (this is a built-in feature of my startup’s product, Exist). I’ve noticed that on happy days when I rate my mood as a 4 or 5, I tend to mention how much work I got done. Maybe getting lots done makes me feel good. But science shows that feeling good will lead to higher productivity, too. Perhaps it’s a self-perpetuating cycle.

Happy employees are more productive

Studies show that happy employees can be up to 12% more productive. That’s a big boost simply from feeling happier. A big part of employee happiness at work is whether they feel cared-for by the company. Taking their concerns and interests seriously and working hard to make sure employees feel safe and valued can increase their overall satisfaction. One example of this is Paul O’Neil’s focus on improving employee safety at Alcoa, an aluminium producer, when he took over in 1987. employee productivity increased over the next 13 years as Paul decreased accident rates dramatically, and by the time he stepped down, the company’s annual income had grown by 500%. Happy employees aren’t just more productive when they’re at work, they take fewer days off from work, too. They’re more likely to be rated highly by customers and a happy team correlates to higher earnings for the company overall. employees with a positive mindset are also better able to handle challenges or stressful situations at work.

Increasing happiness at work

Experts are still debating what makes employees most happy at work. One strong theory is having strong personal relationships. For Bank of America’s call centers, an experiment to let more employees take breaks at the same time, giving them more chances for social interactions and building friendships led to a $15 million per year saving due to increased productivity. Happiness can also be increased by getting more exercise, sleeping better, volunteering, and meditation. Encouraging these healthy practices in your employees is a good way to show that you care about their wellbeing. Some companies even organise volunteering for their employees. Lastly, anticipation increases happiness. employees who take vacations have spikes of happiness up to two months before they leave, simply due to the joy of anticipating the experience. While you can’t force your employees to take time off, you can replicate this experience at work by introducing new events, promotions, or positive changes well before they happen, giving employees time to enjoy the feeling of anticipation.

Happiness vs. meaning

Another theory about what makes employees happy focuses on a sense of purpose or meaningful contribution. I’ve found in my previous research on happiness that there’s quite a difference between a life filled with happiness and one filled with meaning:

Being happy is about feeling good. Meaning is derived from contributing to others or to society in a bigger way.

A simplistic way to explain the difference is that happiness is about receiving, getting what we want makes us feel happy, whereas meaning is about giving to others. We feel needed, important, and purposeful when we help others. Happiness generally comes from having our needs met, not feeling stressed or anxious, and having things go our way. Pursuing happiness alone ironically makes us unhappy, because it’s a self-focused pursuit. One study even found that the more emphasis someone placed on happiness, the less likely they were to find it. Another found that telling people happiness is important makes them less likely to experience it. Pursuing meaning, on the other hand, may lead to happiness as a side effect. And an overlap of meaning and happiness is pretty much the best life experience we can hope for.

Improving meaningful contributions at work

How can you improve feelings of meaningful contribution for your employees? Although there’s no right way, the purpose is simple: help them to see how they’re contributing to something larger than themselves. This could be a team effort within your business, the business as a whole, or even their contributions to customer happiness. When I worked in music retail, the teams I worked with in small, quiet stores enjoyed their customer interactions the most because they felt a sense of meaning from spending more time with each customer and helping them find what they wanted. During holidays, these small teams enjoyed suggesting gifts more than the teams at bigger stores where they were so busy the time they spent with customers was cut to a minimum. When I worked in a fast food chain, we competed against other stores in our area to have the fastest drive-thru times. With just 2-3 people working together on drive-thru per shift, we found that we enjoyed our jobs more due to the shared purpose of hitting our targets. When each monthly report rolled in to show how we ranked amongst other stores, every employee got to share in our pride when we performed well, further building up our sense of meaning in our jobs. But sometimes meaning comes from outside the workplace. Some employees are working to support their families, or to pay for school so they can pursue their dreams. If their job is part of the bigger picture of meaning in their lives, try supporting that and showing that you want them to succeed in all areas of their lives. After all, a caring boss is more important than what you earn.


This post was written by Belle Beth Cooper 

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