Happiness at work – does it actually matter?

As part of our “work and life balance” initiative, we are featuring a range of topics revolving around the conscious step of putting people at the centre as your greatest asset, the single most important ingredient at the very core. This series is all about featuring knowledge, tools and advice that will help businesses and individuals to understand the benefits and approaches to finding the right work-life balance.

In this context, we had a chat with Jane Ginnever, founder of SHIFT to gain some understanding  as to whether being happy at work really matters.

Jane recently shared her opinion on the topic – that she is not necessarily a great enthusiast of happiness at work because in her view it “misses the point”. As an interesting and fairly “out there” statement in the age of modern working life, we were keen to catch up with Jane to share her thoughts further…

ADLIB: In your recent opinion piece you mentioned that you find the focus on happiness at work unhelpful and that it’s about getting stuff done. As an alternative, you recommend to focus on how to make work better, both for organisations and for those that work within them.

Could you share what made you come to this statement and are you able to share some suggestions to practically shift the focus internally?

Jane Ginnever:

It’s not that I want people to be unhappy at work. But I believe that we should do work that makes us happy, and the organisations we work for should focus on enabling that, rather than trying to make bad work better by providing ‘treats’ to make us happy.

The things that get in the way of us being happy at work are often the things that also stop us doing our job in what we believe is the ‘right way’, right for the company and for the customer. People are happiest in work when they’re able to do a great job, feel supported as part of a great team and believe they are really making a difference. That’s an outcome that any employer would want to see too, and the most successful businesses are better at achieving it more of the time.

I think most senior managers have a sense that that’s what they should be aiming for, but it’s not an outcome that’s easy to achieve, and it can be even more difficult to sustain. So efforts by bosses to make people happy often address only the superficial symptoms, rather than the real causes of people’s unhappiness at work. I guess that’s better than doing nothing at all, but it doesn’t really make much difference.

I came to these conclusions as a result of a number of things: listening to a lot of people; my own lived experience as an employee for almost 30 years (12 of those in HR); reading lots of research about organisational performance, competitive advantage, employee engagement and teams; and working with companies to try out different approaches.  

As I’ve already highlighted, I believe most senior managers have a view of how good things could be, certainly in terms of the outcomes for the business; their challenge is that they don’t know how to achieve it. And the answer isn’t simple. The good news is, as with so many of these complex problems, the answers are usually held within the team. I advise (and, through my consultancy work, support) managers to work with the team to develop new ways of working, encouraging them all to challenge their own assumptions about the way things ‘have’ to work.  

Key levers for change that make people happier include creating ways of working that help you to: get people into the right job for them and then, very importantly, allow them as much control as possible over how they do it; support people to work together effectively; value people for who they are not just what they do; and connect everyone to the purpose of the organisation and the customer.

There is much more potential within our teams than we are currently realising. That doesn’t mean working harder, it means working smarter. It’s time to focus on enabling that, and stop trying to just make people happy.

Thanks for sharing, Jane!

Written by