Happy people are productive people. Image: Shutterstock

Thursday 9th June 2016

The pursuit of happiness

How can we make our workplaces cheerier, and more productive?

A lot of people in the UK aren’t what you’d call happy at work. They’re at work because, quite simply, they have to be.

The pressure to buy a home, provide for a family and the ideology of consumerism puts a lot of pressure on people to earn, earn, and earn more.

Against this background, why should employers take an interest in the happiness and wellbeing of their workforce? In short, all the research tells us that it makes good business sense and ultimately saves the employer money. So the real question is, can employers afford not to take an interest?

Last year the Health and Safety Executive released figures showing that 9 million days of work were lost to stress. Mental health charity Mind estimates that work-related anxiety and stress costs the economy £26 billion each year.

To put that figure into perspective, the UK deficit in Quarter 4 2015 was £32.7 billion. Labour turnover costs are another cost consideration for employers. The Oxford Economics and Income Protection Providers reported in 2014 that when lost productivity is taken into account, the average fee for replacing a staff member is £30,614.

Financial loss due to ill health is a problematic scenario and has the potential to create legal complications if it starts to affect the ability of a business to operate effectively. If stress increases, productivity is reduced and more stress is put on the remaining employees, creating an economy that effectively cannibalises itself.

Satisfaction inspires productivity

The value to business of employee job satisfaction can’t be underestimated, and should be a strategic priority across all parts of an organisation.

A recent study by economists at the University of Warwick found that happiness led to a 12% spike in productivity, while unhappy workers proved to be 10% less productive.

Here’s a real life example of happiness at work in action. I recently stayed at a busy hotel in Leeds. During the night the fire alarm was set off by a guest. The hotel staff were incredibly apologetic. A while later, a second alarm blared. Amazingly the hotel staff again apologised, explaining that the second alarm was their fault when resetting the alarm – so refreshingly honest.

A warm smile at breakfast? Photo: Shutterstock

The next morning I overheard one of the waiting staff query why his suited colleague had come to help clear the tables. She explained she fancied coming front of house for a change and saw he was really busy clearing tables. He looked pleased with this act of kindness, and the two proceeded to clear the tables in half the time. The chef then walked over to my table, smiled, and asked me how my breakfast was.

The point of this tale is that I, the consumer, was happy throughout my stay. Without exception all of the staff looked happy, and as a result were giving discretionary effort – exceeding the role of their job description.

Happiness and productivity are cyclical: I’ll return to that particular hotel next time I am in Leeds.

Encourage a positive culture. To create a positive, inclusive work culture across any organisation, a number of fairly simple principles can be encouraged:

Human connections. Relationships are the most important overall contributor to happiness. The hotel staff came across as a team despite there being different levels and departments.

Employees that do things for others. The ‘suited colleague’ at the hotel gave her time to help her colleague clear the tables. Small acts of unwarranted kindness can go a long way.

Healthy body and mind. More and more evidence shows physical exercise helps with mental wellbeing. Encourage it: get outside, sleep well, eat well, and meditate.

Employee mindfulness. Encourage employees to be mindful and aware. It can do wonders for wellbeing in all areas of work, and stops us dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.

Educating employees. Learning affects wellbeing in lots of positive ways. It exposes us to new ideas and ways of thinking and keeps people interested. Ever thought of offering Yoga classes at lunchtime?

These principles needn’t apply to just senior management, but rather across the organisation as a whole. While in danger of sounding patronising, helping employees to help themselves is a very effective way of overcoming a top-down ‘forced happiness’ approach which may have the exact opposite effect of what you are trying to achieve.

Every business and every worker is different. You may have to skin a few cats to find a way that works for your business, but once you have, fewer hours will be lost, output will be improved and the number of smiling, productive employees will increase.

About the author

Stephanie Harper

Stephanie Harper is senior HR projects manager at Law At Work.