Happiness at Work

By Katie Langmore | Vol: 39 Issue: 2 | Jul 2016
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Happiness at Work

Take a look around at your colleagues – chances are they’re stressed. Chances are that you are, too. According to a survey of  more than 1,500 Australians by the Australian Psychological Society, workplace stress is on the rise and  levels of job satisfaction and workplace well being are dropping. Three in four respondents said their stress levels were affecting their health.

Similarly, a recent nationwide study of 1,300 Australians by Pac Executive has revealed that one in  three Australians are unhappy in their work, and it’s costing the economy. The survey suggests  unhappy employees are 22 per cent less productive, while a recent report by Employsure claims workplace stress is costing the Australian economy AU$14.81 billion a year.

Stress can also be measured by workplace absence. In New Zealand, absences have been estimated by  Business NZ to cost the economy NZ$1.26 billion annually, with an average absence rate of 4.5 days per employee. In Australia the cost is AU$44 billion, according to the Australian Industry Group.


While the notion of job satisfaction has a long history in the workplace, the idea of happiness  itself has hovered around the fringes. But in the last decade a new movement in psychology has  emerged, focusing on the science of wellbeing.

In order to measure workplace happiness, researchers had to decide on what exactly they were  measuring.

“Research into wellbeing, going back to the ancient Greek philosophers, has looked at two types of happiness,” says Professor of Management at Bond University, Cynthia  Fisher. “The hedonic view of happiness is about pleasure. Does something feel good? In the  workplace this could be having a laugh with a colleague. The eudaemonic approach says happiness is  about living the ‘good life’ rather than the pleasurable life – having a sense of purpose, becoming  what you were meant to be. At work, this could mean having a strong belief in the worth of the job,  growing one’s skills and/or helping others. You can measure them separately but they’re often  highly correlated because people get pleasure from doing things well and doing things that have meaning.”

In her studies, Cynthia asked research subjects to rate how they were feeling at work at random  times throughout the day. People felt better when they felt they were performing their tasks  better. She references other studies that have revealed that everyone experiences “affective events” – the “minor hassles and uplifts” that make you feel good or frustrated – throughout the day. Wellbeing is partly due to resilience in the face of hassles  and experiencing enough “uplifts”, such as good feedback.

“I’m becoming more and more convinced that appreciation from management is very important to a sense of wellbeing at work,” she says.

In addition to feeling appreciated and respected, Cynthia suggests other causes of happiness at  work include feeling engaged and challenged, having a connection with colleagues, feeling the job is a good fit  and that there is meaning in the work. Meaning is a big driver in the insurance industry. When  staff members see and experience the positive results of their work, especially during a time of  need for the client, for example after a claim, the meaning of their work becomes far clearer.


The work of the father of positive psychology, Dr Martin Seligman, suggests that while people have  a set point of happiness that they normally settle back to even after adversity, happiness levels  can be enhanced through action. Such actions include becoming engaged in tasks, doing things that deploy your strengths, forging connections with people, doing things that are  meaningful, exercising gratitude and performing acts of kindness.

Findings about happiness in the workplace are similar. While some people are likely to be more or  less satisfied in general, developing “psychological capital” – resilience, hope, optimism and self-efficacy – is  one factor among many others that can be improved. Cynthia suggests first asking yourself if you are in the right job. “Are you feeling progress and growth?” she asks. “Are the leaders showing respect and appreciation? ”

Secondly, there is job crafting – trying to make your job fit you as well as possible. “People are  happier and more effective if their job engages their strengths,” she says. “Work out what your strengths are and see if you can negotiate a role that allows you to use those strengths and  doesn’t ask you too much to do things that you don’t have natural aptitude for or interest in. 

Maybe there’s somebody down the hall who does like doing those things.”


While Cynthia says ability is a stronger predictor of productivity than attitude, she says there is  a modest correlation between wellbeing and performance  and retention.

“The cost of turnover is often underestimated. You lose knowledge capital when people walk out the  door. Everything you’ve invested in them is gone,” she says. “You also lose the social capital of  their relationships inside and outside the organisation.” 

There’s a trifecta at play, Cynthia says. “The attitudes of effective commitment, job satisfaction and work engagement collectively are relatively strong predictors of  work performance, broadly defined as ‘retention’, ‘citizenship behaviour’ and ‘core task  performance’.”

Many studies support these facts.

Researchers have found the brain works better when a person is feeling positive. So how do you go about enhancing your own workplace happiness? Here are Cynthia’s top five tips.

  1. Nurture trust and relationships. People are happier when they get on well with colleagues and  when their employer acts in a fair manner, treating workers with dignity and respect.
  2. Implement high-performance practices. Provide employees with more autonomy, challenging tasks,  training and growth opportunities. Encourage sharing of information and power.
  3. Work to strengths. Take the time to understand the different strengths of each employee and give them work that uses those  unique strengths.
  4. Enable goal achievement. Let workers see a task through from beginning to completion and  acknowledge the end result with positive feedback.
  5. Ensure you have inspiring leaders. Research links the behaviour of management to employee satisfaction. Charismatic leaders have happier employees. Good relationships with management increase retention rates.


A certain amount of stress can be helpful in the workplace. Associate Professor Amirali Minbashian, from UNSW Australia Business School, explains why.

Your research suggests a certain amount of stress is good for performance. Why is that? 

A small amount of stress can be helpful for performance because it prepares us to deal with the  task at hand. We normally experience stress when we perceive a situation in threatening terms. When the level of stress is not too high, this may prompt us to allocate a greater amount of our physical and mental resources to dealing with the task, which, in turn, improves performance. However, beyond a certain level,  increasing stress will lead to poorer performance.

What does a manageable amount of stress look like in the work environment? 

Ideally, stress levels should be no more than low to moderate (i.e. not panic). The source of the  stress is also important. Employees perform better (up to a certain point) when the stress is  linked to the task itself. If an employee is stressed due to factors that are unrelated to the  task, such as personal problems at home, then it is unlikely that this would improve performance on  the task.

What can managers do to help their staff experience only manageable levels of stress? 

Beyond making  stress management programs available to their employees, managers can help by minimising (to the  extent possible) some of the main causes of stress at work.

For example, conflicting or unclear role expectations, long or irregular hours, a lack of autonomy  and inadequate feedback are often experienced as stressful by employees. It is also important to have systems in place that are perceived as being fair. Poor physical  conditions such as excessive noise, temperatures that are too high or too low, poor lighting and  overcrowding contribute to increased stress.


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