Date posted: 1/12/2016 5 min read

Happiness key to boosting staff productivity

Psychologist and happiness expert Tal Ben-Shahar tells us how to get happy

In brief

  • Happiness appears to be a cause of success, not an outcome of success
  • Invest in your employees - happy staff are more productive, creative and healthier
  • Regular physical exercise has the same effect as our most powerful psychiatric medication

Worse than working

Ever had the Monday morning blues? On a Tuesday?

Sometimes going to work can feel like stubbing a mental toe — painful, thankless and pointless. Other times, working can bring meaning to our lives, make us feel useful and proud. Why can’t we be happy at work all the time?

“Different things make different people happy. In general these things fall into one or both of two categories: meaning and pleasure. Ideally what we want is to find things that provide us both meaning and pleasure,” says Tal Ben-Shahar, psychologist, lecturer and happiness expert.

How happy we are at work will, in part, depend on the extent to which we find “meaning and pleasure” there, Ben-Shahar says.

It is also influenced by how friendly we feel towards our co-workers and how much our jobs allow us to achieve the things we want in our lives.

“Disappointment makes us sad, when we really want something and fail to attain it. More than anything, though, loneliness makes us sad.”

If you get paid enough to live comfortably, have a decent work-life balance and enough co-workers you like to help the time pass quickly and are essentially happy at work, you are probably in a small minority of the working population. Ben-Shahar’s bad news is that for most of us this is not the case.

“Unfortunately, most people are unhappy at work — they are disengaged and disinterested — and that means that their overall happiness is negatively impacted. We spend most of our waking hours at work, so whether or not we’re happy at work affects our overall levels of wellbeing.”

Business case for happiness

Most people believe that success will lead to wellbeing. Their mental model is: success is the cause and happiness the effect.

“But most people have it wrong. We know from a great deal of research that success, at best, leads to a spike in one’s happiness levels, but the spike is temporary, ephemeral. But while success does not lead to wellbeing, the opposite is the case.

Happiness appears to be a cause of success, not an outcome of success, he says.

“This is a very important finding, turning the cause-and-effect relationship around and correcting the misperception that so many people have.

“The reason for the above is that when we experience positive emotions we are more creative, more motivated, form better relationships, and are physically healthier.”

And that makes us better people to have around, and better employees.

Keeping your staff happy is not only a humanitarian thing to do, it is also an investment that offers a great return, Ben-Shahar says.

Happy staff are more productive, creative and healthier.

“Organisations should invest in their employees’ happiness as an end in itself, and also as a means toward higher profits. Happiness pays.”

Cut the stress

One of the key ways we can improve our mental wellbeing at work is by managing stress effectively. Ben-Shahar suggests people identify and exercise their strengths as much as practicable.

“People who know and use their strengths are not just less stressed, they are happier, more motivated, and more successful in the workplace.”

He says employers should provide what Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson calls psychological safety, which is the confidence that no member of the team would be embarrassed or punished if she spoke out, asked for assistance, or failed in a specific task.

“When team leaders create a climate of psychological safety, when members feel comfortable “failing” and then sharing and discussing their mistakes, all members of the team can learn and improve.

“In contrast, when mistakes are concealed, learning is less likely to take place, and the likelihood that errors will be repeated is higher.”

Regular exercise can also contribute to wellbeing — both mental and physical.

“Regular physical exercise — as little as three weekly sessions of 30 minutes each — has the same effect as our most powerful psychiatric medication.

“The workplace will be a happier place, a more creative place, and a less stressful place if the employees started a physical exercise regime.”

And we need to learn how to turn work off.

“People need to take regular breaks during the day, and then have time to recover when they’re at home. Being ‘on’ all the time is not helpful for the individual employee, nor for the organisation.

“More is not necessarily better. We need to recharge our psychological batteries. Creativity and productivity actually go down when there are no times for recovery throughout the day (15 minutes of downtime every hour or two), week (at least one day off), and year (a real vacation once every six or 12 months).”

Walking back to happiness

While we are all interested in happiness, Ben-Shahar is more interested than most. He has studied it, sought it and made a career of it.

In part, this fascination stems from finding himself unhappy, and not knowing why or what to do about it. 

“Initially, what got me interested in studying happiness was my own unhappiness,” Ben-Shahar admits.  “I was doing well as an undergraduate student at Harvard, I was a top athlete [he played squash at international level], I had a good social life — and I was unhappy. It was then that I realised that the internal matters more to one’s levels of wellbeing than the external, and it was then that I got into psychology. “After studying positive psychology, and benefiting from it, I wanted to share what I learned with others.”

And he shares a lot. Ben-Shahar talks about happiness [he is appearing at the Chartered Accountants ANZ Business Forum, see below], teaches about happiness and is the author of international bestsellers Happiness and Being Happy. His Harvard course on positive psychology was one of the most popular in the university’s history.

With a BA in Philosophy and Psychology, PhD in Organisational Behaviour, international reputation as an expert and history of personal and professional achievement, he is by most measures a success story.

But, as noted above, that doesn’t make him happy all the time. That’s not how happiness works.

“There are no people who are happy all the time. They simply don’t exist. Going through hardship, struggling, experiencing emotional pain — these are part and parcel of any life.”

Happiness now

The workforce demographic has changed significantly over the past decades, and continues to evolve. Is there a fundamental difference in what modern employees expect from their employers when compared with workers in the 1980s and 1990s?

“Employees today are looking for more than their pay cheque. They are looking for a place where they’ll be fulfilled as well. This means that the employer needs to take into consideration the employees’ strengths, what provides them with meaning, and so on.”

It also means employers need to take an interest in their staff not just as commodities, but as people, he says.

“The first thing is to listen to them. When someone is listened to, he or she feels cared for, valued.

“Second, it is important to actually invest in the wellbeing of the employees. The mere act of doing something for the employee can go a long way. Primarily, though, it is to genuinely care.”

“When we experience positive emotions we are more creative, more motivated, form better relationships, and are physically healthier.”

This article was first published in the April 2016 issue of Acuity magazine.