It pays to be happy

4 minute read

Confucius believed that if you “Choose a job you love, you will never work a day in your life.” So, does being happy at work mean you are more productive?

The science of happiness has a very clear answer.

Yes, happy workers are more productive.

priscilla-du-preez-XkKCui44iM0-unsplashHere’s some evidence: in a recent study of 1,800 British call centre workers a clear causal effect of happiness on productivity was seen. Happier employees worked the same hours as everyone else but made more calls per hour and achieved 13% higher sales.

Experimental work conducted at the University of Warwick found a very similar effect. Productivity per happy worker was on average of 12 percent higher (and up to 20 percent). The effect was larger for unhappy employees: unhappy events in workers’ lives decreased productivity for about two years.

And there’s more! An analysis of more than 300 studies by the London School of Economics showed that worker wellbeing is associated with higher productivity and firm performance across all industries and regions of the world.

The evidence is accumulating, showing that a causal relationship runs from improved wellbeing to productivity.

While firms should care about these findings, intervening to ‘make’ employees happy at work is a mistake. For example, the expectation that work should always make us happy is paternalistic and naïve: like everything in life, work generates a wide range of emotions. Requiring people to be jolly (“have a nice day”) while failing to fix awful work conditions won’t cut it. After all, if the job makes someone feel poor, depressed and meaningless it may well be because the job is meaningless, poorly paid and depressing.

Bus companies offer an object lesson in making people unhappy. In an age when population growth and environmental concerns are creating strong demand for public transport, bus companies in NZ have perennial issues recruiting and retaining drivers. Yet for decades the operator in Wellington resisted paying drivers any more than minimum wage, required them to operate split shifts and operate in a stressful environment, and offered only limited support and professional growth. Firms that continue to view employees only as fungible cogs in a machine burn enormous amounts of goodwill and talent.


How to grow happiness at work


Ironically, one of the best ways to build a happier workforce is by removing the things that cause people to feel unhappy at work. Over many years research has consistently shown the same set of factors lead people to feel unhappy at work:

  • workload and balance (if you are exhausted you can’t be happy)
  • being underpaid (higher wages are indeed predictive of greater happiness)
  • poor relationships, especially with bosses (manager competence is a strong driver of worker wellbeing. Meanwhile, McKinsey report 75% of American workers say the boss is the most stressful part of their day)
  • problems at home or with family (Umbrella research shows not having time to deal with problems at home produces the most distress).
  • boring work (jobs that require learning and give variety produce more positive emotions)


Even hyper-capitalist firms understand the value of promoting wellbeing and happiness at work. Facebook, for example, has consistently topped lists of best companies to work for because it provides support for employee physical health (from healthy snacks to health checks for employee families to encouragement to do physical activity). Facebook also provides training for managers and staff in mental wellness (and even provides up to 25 therapy sessions for staff and their families). I don’t think for a second that Facebook is altruistic. But by promoting a healthy work-life balance their people strengthen the personal resources that they hold outside of work, which in turn means they are more fit to perform at work.

Better managed companies tend to have happier employees too. Effective internal systems and well-skilled managers who are clear about firm goals and strategies means staff are freed from internal battles with confused priorities and internal bureaucracy. There is very strong evidence that well run firms both enhance their bottom lines and their employees lives. That said, New Zealand, sadly, does poorly in this area – NZ firms tend to be ad hoc and somewhat amateurishly run.

Winsborough’s own research shows that good managers are one of the most important drivers of positivity at work. Leaders who take an interest in staff wellbeing, who are honest, competent, and who provide feedback and guidance are literally golden.

Finally, it is incredibly important to target the drivers of wellbeing at work. Positive social relationships can be developed by promoting civility and inclusion, and acting swiftly to stamp out bullying. Celebrating successes and avoiding blame and recrimination when mistakes are made helps create psychological safety, which is an essential precursor to happiness.

Ludwig Wittgenstein got it right when he said “The world of the happy is quite different from that of the unhappy.” Good organisations know it too.


Photo credit: Unsplash, Priscilla du Preez