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Henley Leadership Group Blog

Three Steps To Take To Keep Your People Happy At Work


Previously published on Forbes.com

Are you happy at work? You know, actually happy at work most days? I’m not talking about being happy on a Friday or right before a two-week vacation. I’m talking about deep-seated happiness — the “I’m in the right place and it's mostly great” kind of happiness.

This is about true contentment, the kind that drives you to do your work with passion, to show up energetically. It’s so infectious, it has people wanting what you have, and wanting to know: What makes her so happy?

This isn’t the same as being professionally fulfilled or on the right track or even doing good work or feeling empowered. The truth is, you can have all that, and still not be happy.

So now you might be asking yourself, “Is happiness at work relevant?” Does it matter?

I believe it does.

And there are plenty of statistics that support that assessment, but before I get to those, let’s consider for a moment what happens when we’re unhappy at work.

First of all, if we are unhappy at our job, we’re unlikely to say so. We’ll say other things, like, “This place sucks. I hate my boss.” That kind of thing.

Here’s what else we do when we’re unhappy, whether we’re brand new to the team or ten minutes from retirement: We slow-walk it. We take our time. We might turn passive-aggressive. Some people find ways to “get back” at the company for making them miserable – taking anything from pilfering the pens to bigger items like time or money.

All kinds of negative things happen when people are unhappy, and yet, very few people go up to their boss and say, “I’m unhappy here.” It’s too risky. But it doesn’t matter whether or not you hear the word “unhappy.” Listen to the behaviors, which speak volumes.

The numbers and trends related to unhappiness are also pretty loud – and they’re screaming at us to do something about it. Let’s take a look a just a few of them:

Workplace Stress: Unhappy workplaces are high-stress zones. And stress is expensive. The American Psychological Association estimates that more than $500 billion a year is lost due to workplace stress.

What’s more, 550 million workdays are lost annually due to job stress. The biggest indicator: Stressed out employees call in sick more. And roughly 60% of accidents on the job are related to stress.

Disengagement: Unhappy people check out more. They disengage, hang back, phone it in. And business leaders know how costly that is. Workplaces with low employee engagement scores have 18% lower productivity, their profits are 16% lower, and they have 37% lower job growth. And their stock suffers too: Low engagement companies see a 65% lower share price over time.

Turnover Rate: Unhappiness and stress causes people to change jobs more frequently. The American Institute of Stress says that workplace stress causes a voluntary turnover to jump by nearly 50%.

Turnover rate is something to watch closely for as the war for talent rages on. Losing people costs real money. The Center for American Progress estimates that replacing a single employee can cost as much as 20% of that person’s salary.

So, yes, happiness at work is serious business. We know that happy workers grow company value. In 2018, the stock prices of companies with high morale grew 19.4%, compared with 10% for companies with low to moderate morale.

So, What Do We do About It?

While happiness is being written about and talked about more, something important is missing, and that’s a focus on what leaders do differently in happy workplaces.

We’re in the midst of a research project focusing on both happy and unhappy organizations, with a goal of understanding what makes them different. We’re targeting 40 happy companies and 40 unhappy companies so that we can figure out what’s really going on under the hood, so to speak.

Early on in this process, our research is turning up something surprising. Workplace happiness isn’t about behavior change, though that can be part of it. More pivotal are the leaders of happy companies, who we’ve found are better at infusing positive energy into their work and teams. This is about being. “Being” points to positive internal states like generous, light-hearted, accountable, gracious, clear.

We’re not talking about the kind of fleeting happiness people get from foosball tables or free beer and popcorn on Friday afternoons. That’s the easy stuff and, frankly, those superficial fixes don’t fundamentally move the needle. We are talking about genuine, deep, lasting I-love-to-work-here happiness.

How do you make it happen, for yourself as a leader and decision-maker, and for your team? And importantly, how can you begin to advocate for something life-changing at your organization? How can you create a culture where people want to stay?

Based on the example of those leaders of happy companies in our research, start by doing these three things:

  1. Pay attention to your way of “being.” What is your dominant mood? How would others describe you overall? Are you edgy? Impatient? Present? Focused? Scattered? Over-busy? Once you know your dominant way of “being,” ask yourself if this is what you really want. If not, make some changes.
  2. Ask your team what they need at work to increase the happiness quotient. And then take action on what you can change.
  3. Notice the good. Often, we automatically pay attention to what’s broken or what still needs to be done rather than noticing what’s working, what’s good and what got handled. Change what you notice.

When you start to take steps towards increasing happiness at work, be ready for all kinds of challenges. This is where innovation is unleashed. It’s when productivity surges. Results come from new directions you didn’t think to think about. And it can all make you happy.