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Happiness doesn’t come cheap, but it pays up

abstract of a woman thinking of different careersIn many ways, there’s no such thing as ‘just a job’. What we do within our 9-to-5 work week is powerful. Work defines and shapes us; it takes the form of our personal fingerprint on society. And considering that the average person will give 100 000 hours to working over a lifetime, our jobs are anything but a sideline gig in the greater narrative of life. Our work is deeply personal, grafted into the mesh of our unique human design.

In spite of this, when it comes to measuring organisational success, we’re quick to draw lines and dehumanise the discussion. Profit margins and first mover advantage drive the language of performance that pervades our corporate conversations. Utilisation and expediency are what turn company heads and steer strategic leadership. And though aiming to win is a natural and healthy by-product of business, the danger lies in our diagnostics. Should we fail to perform a full-bodied assessment of our organisations and take the temperature of our people along the way, we may be sustaining a pandemic known as short-termism.

Studies have repeatedly shown that a highly engaged workforce means the difference between a company that outperforms its competitors and one that fails to reach its potential. Engagement activates, and there is much evidence to prove it. But little research has been done on what makes staff really happy ‒ until now.

Australia’s Curtin University, in collaboration with Making Work Absolutely Human (mwah.), has conducted a nationwide research that asks the questions: What makes someone want to get up and give it their all, day after day? What kind of organisational culture fosters happy people with a deep sense of purpose and personal fulfilment? As we may have expected, they found money isn’t everything. Interestingly enough though, when money isn’t everything, it just happens to multiply anyway.

What matters most

Shot of a team of creative businesspeople applauding an achievement“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” We’ve all heard this before, and for those privileged enough to relate, it’s a statement that mwah. research has discovered to be all too true in Australia. Findings reveal that while salary, job security and hours of work count, it’s the job itself that matters most. People want to fundamentally believe in what they do ‒ whether it is tinning top quality tomatoes or driving social activism. Of almost equal importance is the culture in which you work and the people with whom you do it.

These imperatives echo the theory of self-determination, which argues that competence (growth and mastery), autonomy (independence) and a sense of relatedness (working together) need to be in place, should organisations want to nurture healthy environments filled with self-motivated, happy employees. When these three basic elements thrive in a workplace, companies will benefit by way of worker retention, productivity and people who passionately love what they do.

Take, for example, the critical element of autonomy. When employees are entrusted to oversee a task, unencumbered by over-scrutinous and bureaucratic roadblocks, they have proven to perform better and last longer on the job. They are more apt to innovate and offer fresh, creative solutions to historical problems, because they are unhindered by politics and conventionality. Autonomy brings out the best in people, enabling them to inculcate the skills and rich experience of life outside of work into the job itself. Rather than ‘leaving your life in the lobby’, day to day knowledge can be infused into critical aspects of work and tip ‘good ideas on paper’ into ‘better ideas in practice’.

Money still won’t buy happiness

‘Happiness’, however, has a back story. Companies, even countries, who rank high on the happy factor are the result of meticulous investment and careful planning. So strong is the link between happiness and social wellbeing that the UN has reworked its quantifiable diagnostics of social progress and success to set the state of mind front and centre of the analysis. For too long, the world has upheld Gross National Product (GNP) as the primary measurement of prosperity, said UN secretary general, Ban Ki Moon, in 2012. Designating a day for its pre-eminence as a “goal of public policy”, the UN backed the launch of International Happiness Day with the first of its kind, 2013 World Happiness Report. Drawing the distinction between happiness as an emotion and happiness in the sense of life satisfaction, the report was able to put flesh on the bones of a historically esoteric body of thought.

So too has Harvard economist, Michael Porter, who’s currently putting chart-topping Iceland to the test with the launch of what he calls his “Social Progress Index” – a new scale for measuring how well societies are functioning. Essentially he argues that, no matter how well a society provides for its citizens’ basic needs, they will never be satisfied if opportunity to innovate and improve upon their lives is lacking. Says Porter, “The idea has been that social progress happens if we can improve economic progress. If we increase GDP per capita… life gets better.” “That’s true,” he said, “but it’s not enough.” A successful society fosters freedoms and equality and springboards to launch generations higher.

Happiness is a business imperative

If health, wealth and happiness on a societal level seem to suggest some common features, shouldn’t we apply this litmus of scale to our own corporate cultures? As Curtin University research has found, organisations that apply high amounts of trust and employee independence reap better rewards, both in profits and company morale. Companies that unlock passion unlock performance ; they ignite innovation and stir up nonlinear thinking, which tips companies into cutting edge creativity and higher levels of productivity.

Opportunities to grow and gain new skills, to interact across fields of expertise and levels of management, promote employee whole-heartedness and self-motivation. The more an organisation understands what is important to a person, the greater sense of meaning and fulfilment that person feels on the job, and the broader impact that individual can have on the organisation as a whole. When organisational culture adopts a language and posture that prioritises the employee’s experience and promotability, companies will inevitably benefit.

As the saying goes, “The happiest people don’t have the best of everything; they just make the best of everything” . Imagine what we could pull off, if the touchpoints of autonomy, competency and collaboration were named and carefully placed within our HR processes. If happiness was more than lip service and integral to our corporate agenda, we would probably end up accidentally stumbling over profit. Now there’s something to smile about.

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12 replies »

  1. There are still too many companies that blithely state that their personnel are their most important asset but don’t walk the talk. “Bottom line” and “efficiency” and “cost effective” and “financial KPIs” drive the processes. So, many managers keep their heads down, retreat into their silo, and pass the buck downwards.

    • Hi Morton
      I am glad that this article has resonated with you. I think there is a change in culture underway in Aurecon but there is also room for us all to take initiative. In our unit we have created a ‘community’ for mid level engineers similar to the graduate limelight programme and we are actively encouraging our highly utilised staff to take time to develop their skills and invest in areas of interest. I am interested in your learnings (good and bad) also.

  2. Thanks Simon – Thanks also to Jody Boshoff who does a lot (i.e. most) of the work behind the scenes to pull this together.

  3. Imagine if we created the Aurecon Happiness Index that we discussed quarterly with the P&L, how cool would that be?

  4. Great article Vicky – loved it! The positivity that accrues from happiness is very infectious, uplifting and beneficial to personal and company outcomes.

  5. “Purpose, Autonomy and Mastery” as Dan Pink espouses, which builds on Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s tenet of ‘Flow’. Your article touches on all this Vicky, and highlights the importance of these values to employees, and more importantly, the failing of employers who ignore these goals at their peril. It’s a great article that touches on the key ‘gripes’ and differences between engaged and not engaged. Money isn’t everything, but when you aren’t engaged, it quickly becomes a motivator. Similarly recognition. In a healthy, respectful office culture we will often work beyond what is expected of us, but when that respect is lost or not given, employees quickly resort to a work to rule mentality and the business (and morale) suffers.

  6. Nice article Vicky, I can relate to most of its findings. In regard to staff happiness and performance, Ine could equally replace the terms “company” and “organization” with the word “leaders”. I mean since organizations don’t have a will of their own and their behaviour is primarily influenced and inspired through their leaders, we could say that much of what is said is essentially about their leadership style? Agreed that in principle, the culture of an organization is about the behaviour of all employees, but those values are lived and emphasized by their leaders.

  7. Good piece, Vicky. It’s another take on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs whereby most professionals, having satisfied their material needs, seek self-actualisation in their work.

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