In every workplace, the dance between employers and employees is delicate. This tenuous relationship has been made even more so since the COVID-19 pandemic. While employers aren’t the sole architects of employee happiness, they undoubtedly hold influence over it. They can cultivate a positive work culture, provide fair wages and benefits, promote open communication and lay the groundwork for professional growth opportunities. But, as employees demand higher standards, it begs the question: Is it an employer’s job to keep their employees happy?
Nathan Iverson, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology and M.S. program director in industrial-organizational psychology at California Baptist University, says the question of employee happiness is grounded in philosophical and psychological debates.
“For many of these debates, truth lies somewhere between the two polar perspectives,” Iverson says. “In the case of psychological debates, it is often half and half.”
Samara Elkins, lead coach and workshop curator at Coaching by Samara, suggests that while happiness at work looks different for everyone, employers play a significant role in employee happiness. She states that how employers address aspects such as compensation, work culture, communication style and company mission all contribute to the reasons an employee might find joy in their workplace. These factors are crucial to consider.
“There is generally a large correlation between employee performance and happiness. When we enjoy our work and feel a part of the company and goal we are working towards, we work harder,” Elkins explains.
Research supports this claim, as a 2020 study published in Frontiers in Psychology which looked at employees in the banking sector found that workplace happiness—as well as “service-skill use”—had a positive impact on employee performance. Conversely, according to the “Gallup Panel,” lower happiness was associated with lost profits and productivity.
A positive work environment benefits both employers and employees, but what does it entail?
The intricacies of employee engagement
“The trending measure of workplace satisfaction is employee engagement. Macey and Schneider (2008) describe employee engagement as an idealistic state, not something that we are feeling every moment of every day,” Iverson says. “Think of those times where you lose track of time at work, the morning where you look forward to getting to work, the nights where you come home excited about the projects you have been working on.”
While employee engagement can be tracked (Iverson’s favorite measure being the UWES-9—a self-reporting research scale used to analyze employee engagement), he continues that it looks very different on different people. “One size may not fit well,” he says. “For example, role clarity has been shown to be a top predictor of employee engagement for women, and for Asian-Americans, diversity and inclusion has been shown to be a top predictor (Caputo & Hyland, 2014).”
Elkins agrees that it looks different for every person. She suggests that’s why there are no quick fixes to employee happiness.
“We are all motivated and empowered by different things,” she explains. “Some people love an involved boss, while others could find that micromanaging and prefer a hands-off boss. I think right now, many have high expectations for what their work should look like. As a result, many are going in with a glass half empty. Finding your rhythm, finding a good workplace and finding the right balance of work all take time.”
Elkins says that knowing what motivates you and what you enjoy in your work is key to finding your work happiness, as there are many factors to consider, from communication style to company type and compensation importance.
Intentionally fostered workplace culture can significantly impact how we feel about work, but it’s something that has to come from the top down, Elkins notes. “Acknowledging employee accomplishments and taking time to get to know team members makes a bigger impact on happiness than we realize.”
Iverson also stresses the value of workplace culture in employee happiness, asserting that “happy employees tend to work in organizations with strong leadership, clear values and a positive work environment.” He further emphasized the importance of work-life balance, adding that “employers provide their employees with the opportunity to have fulfilling lives outside of work.”
Personal responsibility for work happiness
It can be easy to shift all the responsibility for our workplace happiness to our employers, but Iverson warns against attributing the sole responsibility for employee happiness to the workplace. Instead, individuals must also play a role in their own happiness.
“I like to conceptualize workplace happiness the same way as I do happiness outside of work—as something with dramatic fluctuations but something I can control,” Iverson explains. “On a daily basis, we have the opportunity to see ourselves as victims of our circumstances or as adventurers overcoming obstacles along our path.”
In fact, in a 2019 article by Iverson, he says that, according to his research, “Nearly half of our job satisfaction may be within our control on a day-to-day basis.” So what makes the most significant impact?
“Proactively making friends at work was the most powerful single action that can be taken,” he says. “Most of us crave meaning and purpose in our work. After our basic needs are met, we look for purpose, friendship and growth in our workplace.”
And contrary to popular opinion, you don’t have to love your job to be happy at work.
“Work is always work,” Elkins says. “There is a reason we get paid for it. But, happiness at work is definitely possible… it takes us taking the time to be intentional in finding what we really want to do.”
“The average person spends one-third of their life at work,” she continues. “That is an insane amount of time! It is worth figuring out what is worth spending your time on. Nothing will be perfect, so be realistic. But there are amazing companies, leaders and jobs out there that will allow you to feel the fulfillment, purpose and enjoyment in what you do.”
While employers can certainly cultivate a culture and atmosphere that foster happiness, it’s equally important for individuals to take an active role in nurturing their own happiness in the workplace.
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