When it comes to employee happiness, the “fake it until you make it” adage actually does more harm than good. But leaders should never underestimate the power of authentic happiness in the workplace.
According to a study by Growth Engineering, happy employees are:
31% more productive
Absent less often, with 23% fewer symptoms of fatigue
10% more engaged at work
Able to produce more sales (37% greater)
40% more likely to receive a promotion
Actual employee happiness clearly can drive better business results, as it helps strengthen overall employee engagement and productivity. But we have a problem: most employees are not happy at work. And thus, companies are not earning these extra business results. Check out statistics from Gallup:
Only 13% of workers feel engaged by their work
63% report feeling “not engaged” and “unhappy”
24% are “actively disengaged” in their jobs
Put those final two statistics together, and you have the alarming figure that 87% of employees are generally unhappy at work. That is the vast majority. But remember that adage? You can’t only superficially try to boost employee happiness, because fake happiness not only doesn’t help your business, it actively harms it.
Fake It Until You Make It: The Unhealthy Cliché
Psychological research at the University of Frankfurt am Main has shown that “faking it” or pretending to be happy at work can actually cause drastic health problems, from depression to cardiovascular issues. Dieter Zapf, the chairman of the work and organizational psychology department at the university, looked at employees in heavy customer service roles, such as in airports, call centers, and hospitals.
“We all control our emotions, but it becomes a problem when it’s over a long period,” Professor Zapf said. “Flight stewards on long haul flights having to appear friendly and energetic despite feeling tired can be particularly affected.”
Wait, you might think: You’ve probably heard the story that smiling can boost your mood, even when you’re unhappy? Scientist Robert Soussignan debunked this common idea in a study, showing that while, yes, smiling can boost your mood and “accentuate a positive emotional experience,” it will have no effect on a negative experience. Add another X to the “fake it until you make it” adage.
The health concerns of faking happiness should be concerning to anyone in a leadership role of an organization.
What Doesn’t Work in Boosting Employee Happiness
Many companies have tried various strategies to boost employee happiness, but often, they fall into the “faking it” camp. For example, Walgreens implemented a policy that all customer-facing employees in certain markets had to use “branded salutations.” Employees would address customers with the cheerful phrase “Thank you and be well” — whether they were actually feeling cheerful or not.
While this is an obvious example of the unhealthy faking happiness, there are many other commonplace strategies companies implement that are supposed to boost employee mood. Whether your company plans team happy hours, company-wide barbecues, outings to a theme park, or group dinners at a fancy restaurant, these parties on their own will never be enough to elicit real, honest employee happiness. Worse, they could make employees feel like they have to pretend to be happy when they’re really not satisfied or engaged in their job roles.
How to Cultivate an Authentic Culture of Employee Happiness
“Culture” is the key word here. You can have as many one-off parties as you can afford, but building true employee happiness means embedding it into every aspect of your culture. Build a company culture that employees will be happy to work in.
So, where do you start? A University of Kent study shows that employee happiness comes down to three major elements: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
Autonomy: According to Kent, it’s crucial for employees to feel like they have ownership over their work to feel fulfilled and happy. This means not only being trusted with the responsibility but being able to manage getting it done on your own time and making the decisions without micromanagement. In fact, the study showed that autonomy is 20 times better at predicting happiness than income.
Mastery: Employees want to be able to use their strengths and improve their skills over time at work. This means companies should be investing in training and having open communication about employee strengths to ensure every worker is being used to their full potential.
Purpose: 53% of workers studied by Kent reported that “a job where I can make an impact” as “very important or essential to happiness.” Today’s employees don’t want to be a cog in a wheel, tied up in busy work. They want to see the fruits of their labor making a difference in the real world. Whether it’s working toward charitable goals or otherwise being community-spirited, companies should invest in employee happiness by investing in making an impact.
Aside from these three crucial elements, there are several smaller cultural ways companies can work to boost employee happiness.
Implement a strong employee recognition program with clear criteria so workers can build toward earning company praise for their contributions. But it shouldn’t just be monthly or yearly rewards; ensure that you build a workplace where employees are thanked regularly for their work, no matter if it’s “scheduled.”
Cultivate an environment where workplace friendships can thrive. According to Globoforce, 89% of workers say work relationships matter to quality of life
Bring flexibility into your work environment — especially if you have lots of millennials on staff. In a study by RingCentral, 50% of millennials said flexible work hours and freedom to work from any location improve work-life balance, and that balance is an indicator of happiness and their likelihood of remaining at a job.
Reduce stress in the workplace by introducing ways for employees to exercise, meditate, or just have quiet time. It doesn’t have to cost a lot, either, as you can have someone on staff teach a lunchtime yoga class or meditation session.
Faking happiness doesn’t just not work — it can cause severe health problems. Instead of just planning parties that elicit this superficial happiness, build it into your culture to really have authentically engaged employees.