JONATHAN COOK: Happiness at work
Being happy in your workplace improves productivity — all good jobs should give people a say in decisions that affect what they do, and when and how they do it
The companies I am involved in are happy places. What a difference that makes. I have worked in unhappy places, and although the work may get done, it takes a toll on mental and physical health.
There is a sombre mood in the air, so I thought I should consider happiness, its roots and its fruits. This column focuses on entrepreneurship, and business owners have the power to influence many people.
Compelling research finds that happiness at work improves productivity and related elements like customer service. But even if it didn’t, why wouldn’t one want to be happy at work? Why spend so much time and effort working if it doesn't bring happiness to you and those you work with?
Happiness is a positive feeling that arises during pleasant experiences and activities. But unhappiness can follow if things turn bad. So this transient feeling of happiness needs anchoring in a more permanent source that lasts through times of adversity and loss — and pandemics.
How does one establish a happy workplace? Writing in Greater Good magazine, Emiliana Simon-Thomas offers the handy acronym Perk: purpose, engagement, resilience and kindness.
It is well established that a sense of meaning in life helps people persevere and survive emotionally amid the worst circumstances. This sense of purpose comes from the belief that your work makes a contribution to others in a way that you value.
For example, entrepreneurs might be sustained by providing a secure livelihood for their families and their staff or by providing a service the community needs. And they can sustain their team by emphasising the value of each one’s contribution.
At its most intense, engagement in a task has been described as a state of “flow”. People are happier at work when it brings them opportunities to be so focused that they lose track of time. Not all jobs lend themselves to this degree of immersion, but all good jobs can and should give people a say in decisions that affect what they do, and when and how they do it.
Business owners can help by giving staff scope to be creative in finding and suggesting improvements and opportunities to be stretched by greater challenges, and to develop new skills and knowledge, all accompanied by feedback and recognition of their contribution.
Resilience comes from managing stress well and building coping resources. I would add relationships for the “r” in Perk. Investing in a few key relationships yields happiness dividends for a lifetime — for both parties.
Finally, research also supports the role of kindness and gratitude in reducing negative moods and increasing happiness. Business owners can contribute considerably by enabling staff to treat each other supportively and with respect. Building a people-focused culture is a long-term task that needs to be modelled from the top.
Happiness flows from choosing the suggestions above, and others like exercise, appreciating beauty in nature and art, and beginning each day focused on the good you can achieve. But trying too hard to be happy can be counterproductive. Following too many self-help directives swallows time and energy and can lead to self-absorption, disappointment and guilt at not succeeding — all emotions that banish happiness.
So know what choices you have. You can control your own behaviour, effort and attitude to life. You cannot control pandemics or what others do, think, feel and say — including how they judge you.
For business owners, bringing happiness is a choice too. As champions of happiness at work, not only do we add to the happiness of others but we also strengthen our own sense of purpose and add another reason to approach each day with enthusiasm and anticipation.
Cook, a counselling psychologist, chairs the African Management Institute.
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