1950s office workers, in cats eye glasses (Source: Wikifashion.com)
Ideas for Leaders #410

Happiness at Work: How Daily Reminders Improve Employee Morale

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Key Concept

Employee happiness improves when employees focus on maximizing their happiness. Deliberately taking steps to maximize happiness at work can lead to positive behavioural changes. Companies can help employees through daily technology-driven individual interventions that are more effective than the occasional company picnic or visit to the stadium.

Idea Summary

Research in the past suggested that specifically working at happiness (what can I do today to be happier?) is counterproductive since it focuses the person on what is making him or her unhappy. New research, however, argues for an opposite effect: focusing on your happiness makes you happier. The researchers found that participants in three different studies became happier by simply being asked on a daily basis the question, “How happy was I today?” or a behavioural variant of the question: “Did I do my best to be happy today?”

The behavioural question was the most effective in raising the level of happiness. The reason: A daily focus on what someone might do to be happy leads that person to make behavioural changes. These behavioural changes are varied; deciding to focus on the positive in their lives, making an effort to have positive interactions, striving to be more productive, or simply deciding to worry less are the most common steps taken on a daily basis to increase happiness.

There is a difference between momentary happiness — the immediate result of a happy thought — and global happiness in which a person perceives him- or herself to be happy. The daily prompts on happiness have been shown to do more than simply give people a boost; by sparking behavioural changes, over time a person feels a greater sense of happiness.

Another consideration is the context of the prompts. Can employees in a large firm with more limited flexibility to take steps to be happier still respond to daily questions about their happiness? The research showed that even within more constrained circumstances, simply focusing on one’s happiness can have results.

Salience is the key factor. We change our behaviours based on what we think is most important. Through the simple act of being asked about our happiness on a daily basis, the issue of “happiness” becomes a more important issue than in the past. The result, even in the workplace, is new behaviours leading to an increased state of happiness.

Business Application

Employee happiness and morale leads to higher productivity and better results. Not surprisingly, managers and companies are willing to take initiatives that increase employee happiness; many of these initiatives, from company-sponsored day-care to company-sponsored retreats or activities, are expensive and not necessarily the most effective. Companies can make a better result on their investment simply by encouraging employees to focus on their own happiness-maximization. 

Specifically, a daily question to employees asking if they are doing their best to be happy can be very effective. New technology offers even more creative ways for companies to “intervene” to make sure employees are taking steps on a daily basis to be happy. There are a variety of websites or cell phone apps that help employees continually track everything from meals to workouts to moods. Companies could work with one of these vendors, which would allow employees to anonymously track how well they are taking ownership of their happiness through daily actions.

This individual and anonymous approach is more effective than the traditional one-size-fits-all happiness initiatives such as taking employees out to a ball game. Technology-driven happiness interventions fit individual preferences; after all, different things make different people happy. 

Some managers may question why companies need to intervene at all; if people know what makes them happy, they’ll find the daily intervention that works for them on their own. In truth, constant work pressure pushes the issue of happiness to the background. The company can make a big difference — for the employee and thus for the company — by simply reminding employees that one’s happiness is also important, and urging them to take a moment to do something that gives them joy.

The daily prompt technique is of special interest to firms because happiness is not the only subject that can be broached. Daily questions to employees asking if they did their best to achieve their goals or to be engaged with the firm, for example, has the same salience effect: achieving goals or becoming more engaged suddenly becomes more important to the employee. The daily prompt is thus a versatile technique to help improve employee performance and morale.

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