Happiness at Work. That short phrase can sound pretty flaky taken in isolation. But research and scholarship are showing time and again just what an important subject this for driving top line growth and bottom line results. And how deeply underestimated it has been.
Why Happiness at Work matters
The iOpener Institute based in Oxford UK has run an extensive, rigorous and robust research program since 2005 into what everyone is increasingly called the Science of Happiness at Work™. And our empirical data has found that a happy worker is a high-performing one. The happiest employees:
- Take one tenth the sick-leave of their least happy colleagues
- Are six times more energized
- Intend to stay twice as long in their organizations
- Are twice as productive
Let’s look at this last statistic in more detail.
The data we’ve gathered from 41,000 respondents shows that employees who are happiest at work report being “on task” 80% of their working week. That’s four days a week. It would be impossible for anyone to be on task 100% of the time: it would be unrealistic as we need to chat and connect. Water cooler and coffee moments matter as any leader, manager or employee knows. But we also get stuck when laptops crash, when others are ill, when minds get changed and stuff suddenly pops up which temporarily derails us. So 80% time on task is pretty good.
On the other hand employees who are really unhappy at work spend only 40% of their time on task. That’s two days a week. And it represents a huge cost to any organization. In effect an organization is losing about 100 days’ work – or about 3.5 months for every really unhappy employee. So the data is presenting some really interesting metrics-led facts about the cost of unhappiness at work.
What is Happiness at Work?
So how do we define Happiness at Work? Our definition is that “it is a mindset which enables action to maximize performance and achieve potential”, so it’s a simple yet practical definition which applies to an individual, a team or an organization. But the key focus here is this mindset: everyone knows that approaching something in a positive manner is more likely to get results than doing the opposite. It’s common sense. Yet common sense seems not to be so common when it comes to organizations.
Of course the highs that happiness in the traditional lay sense bring are important too and they also fall within our model. These short bursts of positive emotion which lasts up to 10 seconds, tell us to keep going because we derive personal enjoyment from the activity. But they this isn’t the objective of the approach. The objective of what we do is to create sustainable and enduring change through people, because it’s people who deliver results, not programs or emotions.
At the iOpener Institute, Headquartered in Oxford, UK and located in the USA, Dubai, Germany, the Netherlands, USA, Mexico, Israel and South Africa, we help organizations with their people strategy and implementation, so that business critical employees can be at and contribute their best. That’s what drives high performing workplaces. Doing this in a metrics-led, outcomes-oriented practice ensures return on investment of any interventions.
What’s the model we use?
For us Happiness at Work is based on a researched-based and practitioner-driven model. The Performance-Happiness Model is made up of 5 important components, which we know as the 5Cs. They are:
- Contribution which is about what you do
- Conviction is your short-term motivation
- Culture is your feeling of fit
- Commitment is your long-term engagement
- Confidence is your self-belief
These are all interlocked, working as an ecosystem which means that they have a strong impact on each other. Trust and Pride in an organization and Recognition back from it help form the context in which the 5Cs are operationalized. And, to be happy at work, an individual must have a sense of achieving their potential, which is why it lies at the heart of the model.
What leaders need to understand is how to create that context of pride, trust and recognition, then it’s more likely that their team members will be able to deliver on the 5Cs.
How is this different from engagement?
While we acknowledge that there is some overlap between both the Science of Happiness at Work™ and engagement (whatever definition you use), we can see from our data that there are some important differences. For example senior leaders and general managers frequently report that they are highly engaged at work but they are not happy. We hypothesize that this is because they often also show high levels of Conscientiousness (NEO-PI-3) and therefore invest heavily in their work regardless of mindset.
Second, we take a fundamentally different philosophical position from practitioners and academics who focus on engagement. Typically engagement is held to be a manager’s responsibility; we believe that individuals not managers are responsible for their own Happiness at Work.
Third, we believe in the power of language to create culture. Happiness is a word that everyone uses: When would you go home to your partner and talk about an ‘engagement’ issue inside or outside work? You wouldn’t. If we are to encourage authenticity and transparency we need to adopt a language that reflects this.
So how is the approach useful to organizations?
How to use the approach? A case study
An organization came to us with a big strategic problem about 18 months ago. They were having trouble retaining business critical employees and this was having a devastating effect on their ability to grow. They simply couldn’t take on more client work and were in danger of over-trading. Internally there were problems scoping projects, meetings milestones and delivering quality outcomes for their clients. The business was simply unable to expand or grow because they were losing talent fast. That meant that every team was pretty much in permanent crisis, so our goal was to help them improve this turnover number.
- Assessed the whole organization using our research-driven tool, the iOpener People and Performance Questionnaire (iPPQ).
- Analyzed the data to see what worked and what could work better both at a team and organizational level.
- Ran focus groups to flesh out some of the internal issues which were hampering growth.
- Coached the board and senior leaders using our proprietary 360 tool which aligns with individual iPPQ reports.
- Ensured that the people strategy was aligned with the organizational strategy.
- Re-aligned some of the HR processes to ensure that they were based on what worked well and what could work better.
- Helped leaders to implement the refreshed and realigned HR processes.
- Worked with HR to plan then deliver leadership development aligned with the Science of Happiness at Work™.
- Ensured knowledge transfer into the organization so that HR, leaders and managers could be self-sustaining.
- Found champions for every team so that the approach would remain alive and at top-of-mind.
- Re-assessed the organization.
What issues did we face during implementation?
During this time the organization went through significant change in terms of ownership with all the knock-on consequences in terms of delivering a large-scale intervention. In addition there were, as always, a few leaders who are not ready for embracing new ways of working or leading others. Senior leaders who aren’t prepared to get behind an initiative create risk which needs managing and addressing because employees always take their cue from the top.
What was key to overall project success?
Access to, support from and the attitude of the CEO was a critical success factor. This CEO had an intrinsic and unshakeable belief that the approach was absolutely the right thing for this knowledge-based professional services organization. And we see that in our data too: knowledge-workers who unhappy at work create much more instability and risk because they can so easily jeopardize projects they are involved with.
A second important key to success was that leaders could very quickly see the immediate difference that positively-oriented processes and conversations made. This isn’t to say that they shied away from the tougher conversations: on the contrary. A large part of Happiness at Work consists of doing difficult things and this includes giving negative feedback when needed. And a core part of the leadership development process included helping those leaders coach team members and grow their willingness and skill in offering development feedback.
A third core factor that helped deliver success was ensuring that we were working bottom-up and top-down simultaneously. This meant that everyone could quickly see that things were starting to happen and changes were being implemented.
So what were the outcomes?
When the project started, turnover of business critical employees was running at 25%. Over 15 months, this halved to 12.5%. Not only has this reduction created much more stability and a platform for growth, but of course the recruitment costs to the organization have fallen dramatically. What matters more is the intangible effect on the organization’s social networks. Real-time relationships and therefore trust within and between teams has increased greatly because there is a much greater sense of stability and progress.
A further positive outcome is that the language of the organization has changed. Employees and leaders are using the terminology of the Science of Happiness at Work™. This means that conversations are easier because there is a framework and language where before there wasn’t. And that means it’s much easier to have new, deeper and potentially more meaningful interactions. When the shape of language changes you open up different conversations, cultures and outcomes. And to do that through a positive approach creates incredible cohesion – which is something that all organizations need in today’s uncertain world.