Workplace Happiness: What’s the Secret?

Professor Yannis Georgellis, Kent Business School

Centre for Value Chain Research

As part of this quarter’s theme of Wellbeing and Happiness in the Workplace we asked our portfolio of Kent Business School Academics to share their views.

Professor Yannis Georgellis is Professor of Management at Kent Business School. Spanning across several disciplines, his research explores psychological aspects of decision-making processes within the general context of employee happiness, well-being, and engagement, and their impact on organisational performance.

What does happiness at work mean, and can it really become the next big business metric?

The idea that there is a link between happiness at work and the bottom line of a business has gained immense popularity recently.  However, before we rush to replace profit with happiness as the next big business metric, we need to answer the question: ‘Are happy employees more productive employees?’ If not, then the whole argument that a happy workforce generates profit collapses. From a first look at the evidence, it seems as though happy employees are indeed more productive employees. This is because they are less sick and more dependable. They stay longer and recommend the organisation to others. As they are more sensitive to opportunities, more helpful to co-workers, more confident and more motivated, they accomplish more.

So, should happiness replace profit as a business model?

Thirty years ago I would have said no, as only a very small proportion of a company’s value was likely to be attributed to the value of its human resources. However, this is no longer the case today, as human capital and brand capital make up most of a company’s value. Therefore, creating a happy workforce does matter, and it deserves serious consideration as a potentially credible business model.

How can we make staff happy?

Staff are likely to be happy at work if they feel appreciated, do a useful job, have autonomy, feel they fit in with their organisation and they trust their leaders. But to find out what makes employees happy and engaged, it is also very important to understand what they care most about at work. And this is not always obvious. For instance, research studies show that pay is not necessarily top of the list. Overall, men rate job security over pay and the hours they must work. For women, pay doesn’t come into it. Instead, they value initiative above the job and the hours. If this is the case, then focusing on pay and extrinsic rewards to motivate employees is misleading. Indeed, there is plenty of evidence suggesting that, in many circumstances, monetary incentives can actually backfire and have the opposite effect on employee wellbeing and motivation.

The dark side of happiness

Happy employees tend to enjoy the status quo so much that they might resist change. They may feel so satisfied with their work that they don’t want new challenges. As we all know, it is dissatisfaction with their current position that usually spurs employees into action to innovate and to search for alternatives.

A mistake that employers and HR directors could make is to try to keep employees happy by never saying ‘no’ to them. To succeed, organisations must make difficult choices and, inevitably, there will be winners and losers.

Actually, I would be wary about employee satisfaction surveys showing a very high proportion of happy employees during periods of organisational restructuring. In my mind, this could be a symptom of weak leadership during times when decisive action is needed. After all, I believe that some unhappiness at work is desirable as it could be a great motivator for innovation and higher achievement.

Many thanks to Professor Georgellis for sharing his thoughts with us. Read more on his thought leadership on happiness in the workplace.

Professor Yannis Georgellis teaches on the MSc Human Resource Management programme at Kent Business School, part of The University of Kent. Find out more about the MSc Human Resource Management programme.

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