Why Employers Should Invest in Employee Happiness

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As a former corporate HR leader, I spent a lot of time and effort trying to make our HR initiatives sound less "human" and more like other corporate projects. Getting approval or funding for employee engagement programs or training initiatives meant convincing a room full of executives that these things were worthwhile investments. Executives, in my experience, don't always connect the dots between investments in humans and the bottom line. It required terms like "ROI" and "capital" that are so familiar in the boardroom.

It also meant avoiding the squishy language of human emotion like "employee happiness" or "connection." There was a time in my life when I could eloquently argue that focusing on employee happiness was pointless — the focus should be on employee engagement instead. After all, there can be happy but unproductive employees, and work is about the output. This argument was popular with management, because who wants to worry about keeping employees happy? It's hard work to worry about someone else's happiness. But, I was wrong.

Driving Employee Engagement

Decades of research has revealed that among the most significant drivers of employee engagement are feeling valued, trusted and appreciated. Employees experience work as a relationship, and they need the same things from work that they do in any other relationship in their lives.

Think of an important personal relationship in your life. Do you want that person to be happy? Of course you do. Not only because you care about them, but because when they're happy, your relationship with them is more positive and healthy. A happy employee often brings more of themselves to the work relationship. Whether we take advantage of that opportunity isn't a debate about the importance of happiness, but rather a reflection on our ability to motivate and manage people.

3 Elements to Happiness

But, if we dig deeper into happiness, its importance at work becomes even more clear. Dr. Martin Seligman, author of "Authentic Happiness" and the father of positive psychology, explains that there are three different elements to happiness.

1. Positive Emotion

Very simply, this is how we feel: satisfied, delighted, ecstatic, etc. It's what we usually think of when we hear the word "happy."

2. Engagement

In this context, engagement is about "flow," or that feeling of being one with an activity or experience. According to Seligman, "you need to deploy your highest strengths and talents to meet the world in flow."

3. Meaning

Because humans are driven to find meaning and purpose, we find this highest order of happiness when we belong to and serve something larger than ourselves.

Through this lens, helping employees find happiness at work sounds a lot like the work of employee engagement.

3 Ways to Support Employee Happiness

This framework makes it more clear how we can design work experiences to support employee happiness.

1. Create More Positive Emotions

This can happen in many ways, whether it's a supervisor who greets you and checks in regularly, a co-worker who smiles at you in the hall or having pictures of the people or things we love in our workstation. Creating more positive emotions means thinking actively about how to create more positive moments for employees each day. The book "How Full Is Your Bucket" is a great resource for this.

2. Ensure Job Fit

Flow can only be achieved by ensuring employees' abilities and interests are matched to the job they are asked to do. In order to achieve this, we must hire right and continually assess employees' fit to their role.

3. Give Back

Organizations can affect employees' sense of meaning and purpose at both organizational and individual levels. When an organization is a good corporate citizen and visibly gives back, its employees can feel a sense of meaning by extension. Supporting and encouraging employees to volunteer and give back to their communities can also be powerful.

While it may be awhile before you can convince your executives to invest in an employee happiness initiative, it's abundantly clear that helping our employees find happiness at work is at the very core of the work we do in HR.

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