First-person perspectives on the world of work
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The Future of Work Podcast

Episode 19
Occupational Safety and Health

The Serious Business of Happiness at Work

13 May 2022

Does it matter if people are happy at work? Or should they just be satisfied with reasonable pay and conditions and not expect more?  It’s well-established that happiness is linked to better health and longevity, but an increasing amount of scientific research has found ties with work-related matters like productivity, innovation and staff retention. So, should employers pay attention to staff happiness, and if so, how can they build it?  



-Hello, and welcome to this edition of the ILO's Future of Work podcast.

I'm Sophy Fisher.

Let me start this program by asking you a rather sensitive question.

Are you happy at work?

Are your employees happy at work?

If not, does it matter?

Isn't a bit of dissatisfaction in the workplace

just a normal part of the package,

perhaps even a bit of creative tension, even if we don't like it,

and it makes us a little bit uncomfortable?

An increasing amount of research says that it does matter if we're happy at work.

Moreover, that happiness at work, or the lack of it spills over

into issues like productivity, innovation, and even staff retention.

With me, today to discuss this is Vanessa King.

Vanessa is head of psychology in workplaces

at the not-for-profit body Action for Happiness.

She advises many organizations around the world on happiness

and welfare at work.

She has a Master's Degree in Applied Positive Psychology.

She also has experience in both accountancy and HR,

which means that she knows how organizations work from the inside out.

Vanessa, welcome to the Future of Work podcast.

Thank you for joining us.

-Delightful to be here.

Yes, pleasure.

-Thanks very much.

Look, let me start by asking you, I suppose the key question,

which is, does it really matter if people are happier at work or not?

-Actually, it is quite an interesting question

because like you said in your introduction,

happiness is one of those subjects often people think it's fluffy,

and it's not really a serious subject for the workplace.

Often, I talk about the serious science of happiness,

because there is a growing body of research

that shows if people feel happier in the workplace,

then there are all sorts of benefits that result from it.

We know, for example, that people who are happier,

tend to be more physically healthy,

they're less likely to catch a cold,

if they get a cold, it's likely to be less severe,

they're less likely to get heart disease,

they're more likely to take care of their health.

That's important.

We all care about the health of our employees,

but that translates into reduced sickness absence,

which has a cost, and it reduces the knock-on effect on other colleagues.

We know from a growing body of research that feeling happier at work

is related to higher productivity, with no loss in quality.

Doctors, for example, who were happier have been shown to make faster,

more accurate diagnoses.

Some really interesting research by Alex Edmonds,

who is at the London Business School, he's a finance professor.

He tracked the earnings per share of 100 best companies to work for

in the United States, over a 26-year period.

He compared that to the earnings per share of the stock market peers.

The average of the stock market peers.

He found year on year, the 100 best companies to work for.

These are organizations that pay attention to the happiness of their workforce.

Their earnings per share was higher.

On average, 3.2% higher each year.

He's saying it's something that isn't fluffy.

It's something that actually investors should be taking more seriously.

It actually doesn't just stop there at health and productivity.

We know, for example, that people who are happier,

are more likely to help others more,

they're more likely to engage in less risky behaviors,

they're likely to be more financially responsible,

they're even more likely to be active and engaged citizens.

I think this is really important.

We know that how we feel about our work doesn't stay

at the factory gates or the office door.

We take it home with us, and especially in these days of hybrid working,

and it ripples out to our families, to how we contribute to our communities.

I would argue that happiness is actually a corporate social responsibility.

-When you talk about happiness at work, what do you actually mean?

I assume that you mean something a bit more profound

than just having a giggle around the water fountain,

or having a jolly lunch with a colleague.

-Happiness is actually quite a complex subject.

The ancient Greeks talked about two sorts of happiness.

They talked about hedonia, pleasure.

Feeling good, that laugh with a colleague, that nice lunch,

somebody bringing in the doughnuts, or whatever it is,

but they also talked about a form of happiness called eudaimonia.

This was about a sense of fulfillment, a sense of contributing,

a sense of being able to be our best selves.

To use the best of ourselves and enhance our potential.

It's interesting, because if you think about eudemonic aspects of work,

maybe working on a really tricky project,

or navigating a difficult relationship,

or coming and solving a complex problem,

that does not feel good along the way,

but we know we feel satisfied and fulfilled at the end of it.

Maybe we feel proud that we've made an impact.

Pleasure, those moments of pleasure,

the science shows can actually help us along the way to fulfill and go.

I think we need to think about happiness in the realm,

both those momentary fleeting moments and the longer-term fulfillment.

I think it's not just about those moments of joy.

It could be moments of peace and calm, it could be feeling connected,

it could be feeling cared for, those are all elements of happiness at work.

-The research that you've looked at for your books

and for your work with Action for Happiness,

have you got down as far as defining specific criteria

that create happiness at work?

Be they related to the physical environment,

or related to the kinds of job or the sector that you work in,

or trajectory of your working day?

Have you got that deep into it?

-There's lots of factors that can influence it.

Of course, they are all integrated as well.

My focus is on the psychological.

What are the psychological effects

and the factors that influence our psychological well-being?

I should say, I use the term, happiness,

psychological well-being, resilience interchangeably,

because actually the ingredients that go into each,

and it's-- What I'm finding quite interesting

is when I first immersed myself in this, my masters came out,

I've been working as an organization development [?] person for many years.

When I immerse myself in the science,

you could not talk in organizations about the H-word,

the happiness word, because you just, but you could talk about resilience.

You could talk about well-being,

but that meant healthy options in the canteen,

and gym membership or whatever.

Now interestingly, people are becoming much more open

to this idea of happiness at work.


You equate resilience and happiness directly, do you?


For two reasons.

One is that we know that people who are happier are likely to be more resilient.

None of this has guarantees.

Also, if we look at the ingredients that go into feeling happier,

there are also ingredients that bolster our resilience.

Happiness is not just for the good times if you like.

The science of happiness is actually also further tougher,

more challenging times, too.

You asked me about some of the ingredients that really go into feeling happy.

Of course, there are some fundamentals.

People need to have the fundamentals.

Fair work, safe in work environments, those sorts of things.

When we come to a psychological context, the psychological ingredients,

I as a starter for 10, think about five key psychological principles.

First and foremost, is a sense of what's called relatedness

in [?] sense of connection or sense of being seen,

thought about, cared about, and caring about others,

feeling part of something.

It was quite interesting when looking at very large datasets,

researchers coming out during the pandemic,

that sense of belonging to our organizations

really came to the fore as one of the most important aspects of work.

That sense of connection.

What's interesting about that, and I know we'll come on to some practical things,

but that is conveyed not by the rhetoric and the values of the organization,

but by the micro-interactions we have with colleagues.

Are we treated respectfully?

Are we given the time of day?

Are people interested in what interests us?

Those sorts of things.

Tiny things can make a big difference to that sense of relatedness.

There's one ingredient.

The second ingredient is having a sense of competence and progress.

Feeling effective, not feeling thwarted in what we do,

or that we're not growing or learning.

The third is having a sense of autonomy, which is interesting.

These psychological needs actually don't just relate to work.

They relate to the whole of our lives, and they work cross-culturally,

they manifest differently in different cultures, but it's still there.

A sense of autonomy doesn't mean total freedom.

To live in social structures, we can't have work in organizations.

We have to adapt.

It means having say some say over what I do or how I do it, or--

We know that flexibility and working hours,

for example, is really important to many employees.

There's a sense of that what I do and I matter,

that I'm making a contribution to something bigger than myself,

so a sense of meaning and purpose.

Actually, when we feel that what we're doing is meaningless,

it's very detrimental to our psychological wellbeing.

Fifth, there is a sense of positive emotional environment.

This means two things.

One is that we don't just focus on the issues and the problems,

and as human beings, we're hardwired to do this.

This is something we have to learn to do to overcome the way our brains naturally work.

It doesn't mean ignoring those,

but it means to also focus on what's right,

and how we build on that.

Also that we notice what's going on emotionally for our colleagues.

There's a very recent study from last year that found in organizations,

when colleagues noticed somebody's having an emotional reaction,

whether that was positive or negative, it actually built trust in those teams.

It was particularly pertinent when a colleague noticed

you might be having an adverse and unpleasant emotional reaction.

The thing is, it didn't actually matter whether you got the emotion right or not.

It was the fact that you noticed that built trust.

If we built trust that sense of connect,

we're building that a sense of connection related to us,

which is fundamentally important for our psychological wellbeing,

because we are hardwired as social creatures.

-You're basically being treated by a person.

The other person who's looking at you and seeing,

this is a human being having a reaction, positive or negative?

-It can be positive or negative, but the fact that you notice,

in fact, Google did a project on trying to find the algorithm

for the highest performing teams, was it personality mix?

Was it ways the team worked?

None of that seemed to correlate with high performance as a team consistently.

What they found is that within the over time working in teams working together,

the thing that made most differences, what they called psychological safety,

and two ingredients for that.

One is that I noticed what you were doing,

that emotional check-in type behavior.

Actually, people on the team had equal voice.

That doesn't mean to say, we've all got our two minutes to speak team meetings.

It could be that, but that we notice when a colleague

is maybe holding back or maybe more introverted or less senior,

and we allow, we ask and seek their input,

and that then feeds those psychological needs.

I'm feeling seen, I'm feeling invited in,

showing my ideas gives me a sense of the autonomy and control.

It feeds, so that's really vitally important.

How many of our team meetings are just dominated by the boss,

or loud voices, and there's other voices

and from a risk management perspective and from an innovation perspective,

you want all voices in the room.

-What about things like pay, remuneration, stuff like that.


Yes or no?

-Pay and reward, it's interesting.

My first job in HR when I left accounting was conversation

and benefits for an investment bank.

[laugh] A lot of emphasis on pay, bonuses and things.

Pay is a hygiene factor.

It needs to feel fair, relative to the market, relative to colleagues.

After that, it's actually not a driver of happiness at work.

In fact, if you look at various studies

of what we think will make us happy at work,

a pay rise versus what really makes us happy at work.

We find that there's actually quite a big difference.

There was a recent study with over a million employees

in this study found that people said that feeling energized,

feeling a sense of belonging, feeling sense of purpose were the top things,

and feeling paid fairly was the lowest factor that really made a difference.


Presumably, that also means that if you are very poorly paid,

or you live in poverty, or in working poverty,

it's going to be tougher to be happy,

because you feel

that you are not actually being respected

and honored through your remuneration?

-I think that's absolutely right.

This is where it comes to feeling fairly.

I think we have to make sure that the pay is respectful.

I feel quite strongly as we moved.

I'm most familiar with a European or American environment

where we've moved a lot to gig working, and outsourcing,

and people on zero-hours contracts, where they're working poor.

How can you live in a civilized society where you have the working poor,

where people are working hard, maybe multiple jobs,

but not having enough to make ends meet?

A living wage is respectful and fair,

and that's getting it up to hygiene level,

but beyond that, I think we need

to ignore some of these psychological factors at our peril.

It doesn't mean to say you can--

I think it's really important to say that you can suppress wages,

because you're focusing on happiness stuff,

the psychological stuff,

because that's not fair and that doesn't gender trust.

-I was just going to ask you about that

is whether there's any relationship between things like gig work

or self-employment,

or indeed the forms of hybrid working

that we've seen on the rise in the last two years in the COVID period.

Is there any relationship between the type of work that you do,

or even the sector and your level of happiness?

Is it more difficult to be happy in some ways or in others?

-There are new various different studies

that look at the happiest jobs and whatever and things.

A lot of the ones that I'm familiar with are actually pre COVID,

but we know that people who are self-employed,

they often will have their need for autonomy is high,

but that psychological need for autonomy is met,

but their need for connectedness and that need for consistency

and security is low.

Often they driven quite hard.

The people that come out in terms of highest

in terms of life satisfaction versus jobs are actually professional workers

and managerial and official workers.

The more jeopardy we have in our job in terms of security and belonging,

the lower likelihood is that we'll feel happy.

We also need to acknowledge that there's no one rule here.

That's why I quite like this idea of psychological principles,

because what works for me at this stage in my life,

in the context I'm in, maybe being a freelance worker

or a gig worker might be quite right for me right now,

but it might not have been five years ago

and it might not be an in five years time.

Somebody in my situation may not be that comfortable

with that level of self having to be self-reliant.

It does vary, but I think there is a relationship.

I think the ones that are in the low--

There was a huge study done quite a few years by Michael [?]

that found that even though senior-level employees or whatever,

managers, executives, et cetera,

had more responsibility and more pressure than frontline

or people in routine clerical roles,

that the managers and the professional level workers were happier.

They had better physical benefits for physical health,

because they have more greater sense of control.

Is this sense of control is when I feel I have no option,

when say, "I just have to do it and suppress who I am.

I'm a cog in a machine," and treated as such.

That is very detrimental to our psychological health in the long run.

-Okay, so taking structured workplaces either white-collar workplaces

or blue-collar places such as factories and stuff.

Who's responsible for happiness?

Is it the employers, or is it the workers, or is it a mixture of the two?

Where does it lie?

-It's absolutely a mixture of the two.

We think about the ingredients that go into the working context

as the organizational conditions, clearly the employer,

or the context is responsible for, but we also have a role to play.

The thing is how many of us have been affected

by how somebody else is in the workplace, for good or for ill?

Grumpy boss, or a grumpy colleague does have a-- There's a ripple effect out.

How we are impacts those around us and vice versa.

There's a shared responsibility.

I might not be able to affect the organizational policies

if I'm further down in the organization.

Hopefully, I'll be asked my views in some shape or form,

but I can make a difference in my team, or my immediate quick.

It doesn't mean to say that we have to go around

with a yellow smiley face on, absolutely not,

but we need to have a toolkit to be able to manage that,

and aware that we are having a knock on impact.

If we're sitting around in the canteen,

just moaning about issues every day rather than coming up

with some constructive ideas, or doing what we can what's within our control,

or actually also highlighting what's right.

Then it's actually going to be detrimental for everybody's wellbeing.

I think there's a shared responsibility there, and I think it's,

but I think there's a really interesting role of the manager and the leaders.

The most important person in terms of your experience of work.


Look, we haven't got a huge amount of time left on this podcast,

but let me ask you to give us a bit of a takeaway,

some tips for creating happier workplaces.

Both for employees and for the managers.

What can you give me?

-A couple of things you might want to try,

one is really basic, a really basic thing

that can have a profound difference both for us personally

and make a profound difference for us personally,

and in our teams is, each day--

Try this as an experiment,

I encourage you to should try this as an experiment,

and play around with these things.

Just because they worked in scientific studies

doesn't mean they're going to work for us, all of us.

At the end of your working day, think back on three things you enjoyed,

were grateful for, or pleased about.

Could be tiny.

Maybe write it down.

Some of these people have done that generally in their life,

boosted happiness, and reduced people's propensity to feel down.

Specifically in the workplace doing that,

showed it not only help people detach from work more,

which is really important if you're working from home.

It also reduced the psychological ill-health and boosted psychological well-being.

Just think on reflecting on the good things.

It could be tiny, it could be, "God, I had a really terrible day

but with so and so's help, I got that report in on time."

Or, "I'm glad that day--

I'm glad we managed to get through that tricky meeting."

It could be tiny things.

It doesn't have to be big.

That can have a profound change,

because actually rewiring your brain to also notice what's right,

and that has physiological and psychological impacts,

we haven't got time to go into that.

All this stuff has a physiological and a psychological impact.

-You can literally rewire your brain

to start taking more notice of the positives, and less notice of the negatives?


What happens when we do that, it broadens our perceptual fields,

when we're open to other people, we are more trusting of others,

we are better at problem-solving, we see more options, we're more flexible at thinking.

This is tried and tested research, as opposed to when we're feeling fear,

or hacked off when our perceptual fields are narrow, and we limit what we see.

There's a real, and every emotional state has a physiological component.

Actually, in psychology it caught up.

I would really to experiment with that, and in your team meetings.

What we enact Action for Happiness,

what we do is got our team meetings, we play with that.

We start off with one thing that we are grateful for,

and it could be a work-related thing, could be a personal related thing.

Another thing I would say doing is our connections with others.

In our organization, these micro-moments that I mentioned earlier, are so important.

We think they're in, we think it's incidental,

whether we walk past a colleague in the corridor and grant,

or we walk in without saying hello, or asking people how they are,

or we glide over something they share with us.

These are so important.

Jane Dutton, who was was at the Ross business school at University of Michigan,

found that these, what she calls high-quality connections,

these short positive interactions with others,

it's literally is a few seconds make a difference

to not only individual well-being and individual performance,

but team performance and organization performance,

even organization financial performance.

What does that mean?

It means, if a colleague shares something positive with you, or some good news,

if they had a great dinner last night,

or their kid won in the football team,

or they've just had some good news from a client.

Don't gloss over that and say, "Oh, lovely.

How are you getting on with that report that we need to get done?"

You might just ask a few curious questions, "Oh, who were they playing?"

Or, "What was the client?" Or, "What did you have for dinner?"

You have a couple of curious questions, and that is predictive

of the highest quality relationships.

You can try that at home, by the way, as well with the original work,

and that was done with romantic couples.

That's the thing you're noticing,

you're paying intention to the person you're taking interest

in what they're interested in,

and you're not saying that your work

or whatever is more important than them as a human being.

It doesn't take much time,

but it actually creates quite a profound impact.

I'd really encourage you to try that,

just asking a few active curious questions

when somebody shares a little bit of micro good news, and being kind.

There's kindness.

There's a big study was done in an organization in Spain

where people were indifferent there, people in the experiment

were divided into different groups, if you like.

One group was tasked with over,

I think it was a six week period or three week period of something,

to do acts of kindness for a specific person in one of the other groups.

Now, they didn't know which group they were in,

and they found the people that were on the receiving end of that kindness,

even though they didn't actually aware that

that was a specific part of the experiment,

paid that forward, were kind to others.

I think it was something like 278% more acts of kindness

that they went on to do than control groups.

This stuff has a ripple effect out.

Feeling grateful, when we actually say thank you to colleagues.

If we do that publicly, and specifically,

if we say thank you to colleagues, not just,

"Oh, thanks, Sophie, that was a great job."

We're much more specific than that,

"Sophie, thank you for getting that report in on time.

You really helped us meet that client's needs,

and it really made an impact."

If we share the impact of what that person did,

and the strength that they demonstrated in doing that,

the power of that thank you is amplified.

If that's observed in the organization, that creates a ripple effect out,

a positive ripple effect out that creates a culture

that we all want to be part of.

Really simple things that can make a difference,

and of course, there are bigger things as well.

-Vanessa, listen, thank you very much for those simple

but practical steps related to happiness at work.

Thank you so much for joining us today.

If you want to find out more about Vanessa King's work

or about Action for Happiness,

or simply about happiness at work more generally,

you will find links on the web page of this podcast,

which is on the ILO's website.

For now, let me wish you goodbye.

I hope you will join us again soon for another edition

of the ILO's Future of Work podcast.