Workplace Happiness Is at an All-Time High—But There’s Still Room for Improvement

UPDATED: August 10, 2023
PUBLISHED: July 12, 2023
three women standing at a work table and smiling, a picture of workplace happiness

When you wake up in the morning and realize it’s a Monday (or any weekday, really), are you met with immediate dread? Or do you feel a bit of excitement at what the day could bring? The answer can make or break how you are feeling about your life in general, as spending a large portion of your week in a workplace you enjoy is essential to overall wellness. 

Employees have been through some serious ups and downs in the last few years. They’ve had to navigate changes in virtual and hybrid environments, a Great Resignation, a threatened recession and much more unrest. Now, it seems there’s a bit of a reprieve. A 2022 survey from The Conference Board shows workplace happiness and satisfaction is actually up, and even at an all-time high since the survey began in 1987.

The survey studies 26 components, from wages to training to bonuses, to determine workplace satisfaction rates. The results show just over 62% of U.S. workers are satisfied, compared to 60.2% in the previous year. By comparison, in 2010, after the Great Recession, there was an all-time low in satisfaction rates, at 42.6%. Things are looking up, it seems.

What makes us happier at work?

The survey results beg the question—what’s going right? And why now? The key findings reveal answers, including that people’s “experience of work” indicators—including “work/life balance, workload and performance review processes”—are major reasons they are satisfied in their workplaces or not. But the report also accounts for the fact that some of the most satisfied workers are those who have switched jobs since the pandemic. Finally, and predictably, flexible work arrangements tout increased satisfaction rates “compared to fully remote or fully on-premises workers.”

Not all happiness indicators are easily quantifiable, a fact that Tramelle Jones, San Antonio-based career coach and owner of TDJ Consulting, knows well. So, she calls these the “intangibles.” 

“Things as simple as casual dress, peer training, task bartering and access to no-question mental health days have been reasons clients have told me they chose to stay in a low-paying position over moving into more structured workplaces,” she says. “Although these intangibles don’t take the place of equitable pay, they play a big part in employee decision-making.” 

However, the question is whether it’s really your boss’ or your job’s responsibility to make sure you are “happy” or “fulfilled” at work. Though it obviously leads to increased retention and performance, finding happiness might be a pursuit equally shared between the employee and any external factors.

A gender ‘gap’ in satisfaction

Like many things in the comparison between men and women at work, everything isn’t equal, including the satisfaction rate. Men were more satisfied than women in all 26 components they analyzed, and women were nearly four percentage points less satisfied than men. The main issues include:

  • Sick-day policies
  • Bonus plans
  • Mental health benefit policies
  • Communication channels
  • Promotion policies

These findings point to an ongoing gap in working mothers’ roles navigating work and family expectations, as well as potential inequities with pay and promotion that women have been fighting for centuries. Alyse Nullmeyer, client success manager for Workforce Opportunity Services, a nonprofit that finds, trains and places people from underserved communities in the workplace, has encountered some of these herself. First, her previous employer at another company eliminated her position after she announced her pregnancy to her manager. In addition, she encountered gender-based pay discrepancies. 

“I spoke to my manager about compensation, and he stated that they were not at liberty to provide raises outside of company-wide appraisals. Even after that discussion I still stepped in to help recruit and hire because I had the experience and wanted our company to be successful,” she says. “They hired a male that had no experience in the industry and the same education as myself. His starting salary was significantly more than I was making after a number of years with the organization.”

Outside of her own experience, she has found that “childcare and flexible work scheduling” are the main reasons women she helps cite when it comes to workplace satisfaction versus looking for a different position.

Autonomy: a necessity for workplace happiness and fulfillment

Laura Putnam, San Francisco-based CEO and founder of Motion Infusion and author of Workplace Wellness that Works, says that credit for your work, and autonomy over it, are two must-haves for workplace happiness. She and other female colleagues have repeatedly experienced less-than-ideal interactions robbing her of this over the years.

“These kinds of stories in which women are minimized, not credited or wholly removed from organizational history—not to mention, underpaid and even sexually harassed—are part of the collective experience for women in the workplace,” she says. “It’s no wonder why women are less happy at work than their male counterparts.”

She has worked with more than 200 organizations and says that the common factor with low worker satisfaction is that autonomy: “I have witnessed the toll it takes on employees when they suffer a series of daily indignities that rob them of their need for exerting control over how, when and where they work.”

‘Not our father’s workplace anymore’—an increased focus on workplace happiness

Decades ago, our parents and grandparents might not have thought twice about whether their job brought “happiness,” but rather a steady paycheck, benefits and maybe an agreeable commute. But, times have changed, as have indicators of what makes a “good job.” 

Barbara Palmer, Los Angeles-based workplace consultant and founder of Broad Perspective Consulting (and the Your 4th Trimester™ Program), says it’s not our father’s workplace anymore, especially for the newest generation of employees. 

“I believe young workers are more apt to seek happiness and articulate their needs to create an environment (via the projects they work on and the people they work with) that fulfills them and makes them happier,” she says. “Happiness comes from being your authentic self and working with integrity in an environment that is supportive and validating.”

In addition, Palmer points to the changing landscape and the meshing of our two worlds, home and work, since the pandemic as a reason workplace happiness and fulfillment is more essential than before. 

“We can no longer separate home fulfillment from work. This integration is key to companies thinking about the whole person and not just the projects that individuals work on,” she says. “When we think holistically, we consider elements such as employee well-being and mental health benefits, workplace culture, healthy boundaries and work schedules. The words we use and the actions we take impact our employees, and satisfaction comes from being treated as a person first.”