Most of us would agree that employee happiness is a good thing.
Happy employees often show more favorable outcomes on measures such as job performance, organizational citizenship behaviors, absenteeism, turnover, and healthcare costs.
Organizations with happy employees can also enjoy the benefits of a positive reputation, including greater publicity, customer loyalty, and ability to attract and compete for talent.
Happiness, for its own sake, is also probably a good thing.
Given these positive benefits, many organizations set goals and create initiatives to increase employee happiness. Some succeed and some fail.
To better understand how this works (or not) let’s consider 3 important facts.
1. There are different types of happiness
Happiness and unhappiness can occur as a part of our various moment-to-moment experiences (we’ll come back to this later).
But it is also important to consider happiness as a more cumulative outcome: a broader sense of satisfaction or dissatisfaction.
Research shows that there are actually 2 different types of overall sense of satisfaction:
- Hedonic: Positive and negative emotions. Generally determined by the ability to attain pleasure and avoid pain.
- Eudaimonic: Meaning and purpose. Generally determined by the ability to function and realize one’s potential.
This is an important distinction!
In one sense, being happy could simply mean feeling content or complacent.
In the other sense, being happy might instead mean feeling a sense of accomplishment and motivation to continue achieving.
While both of these things can be good in different ways, knowing this distinction can help you to set appropriate goals for your specific situation.
2. Pursuing happiness can actually be stressful and unhealthy
One of the most effective methods of increasing employee happiness is called work redesign. The goal is to make work more meaningful and engaging.
It’s almost exactly what it sounds like: job tasks are altered or rearranged with the following goals in mind:
- Increase the variety of skills and abilities used, by increasing the variety of tasks performed.
- Increase the significance of tasks performed by emphasizing how the results benefit other people.
- Increase task identity by providing opportunities to see identifiable projects through, beginning to end.
- Increase autonomy by giving employees more discretion about when and how they accomplish tasks.
- Increase feedback to let employees know how well they are doing.
These are all positive changes that can produce great results. However…
Take a second look at that list. What happens if you have too much variety, significance, identity, autonomy, and feedback? It would be incredibly stressful!
Research has shown that it is easy to take work redesign too far.
While employees can often feel happy with very demanding work, they at the same time show a variety of unhealthy physical symptoms related to fatigue and stress.
3. Things that “should” make employees happy can backfire
If you can name an initiative intended to make employees happier, you can probably also name a way that it can go wrong.
Employee recognition programs can lead to jealousy and rivalries between employees. This can ultimately undermine trust, cooperation, and teamwork.
And paying out bonus incentives can have very similar repercussions.
Team-building initiatives can undermine an employee’s sense of individual identity.
Training initiatives and guidelines can undermine an employee’s sense of autonomy.
And so on…
Know your outcomes
To sum up, we all know that employee happiness can be a good thing, but when we try to increase it, the potential for unintended outcomes exists on many levels.
It is therefore essential to actually track outcomes.
Keep an open dialogue with employees, and regularly collect and review data about what is going on.
As an added bonus, knowing that you care about their happiness might actually make employees happy.