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Historically, happiness was only associated with weekends, spare time, and simply not being at work. However, recent research has uncovered a clear connection between happiness and improved employee performance. That makes sense: The more we feel as though our needs are being met in the workplace, the more likely we are to be engaged in delivering high-quality results.

In light of the recognition of the importance of happiness at work, leading companies are placing a greater focus on employee satisfaction these days. That raises a critical question: What can we do to improve our workplace environments to encourage more happiness among employees?

Why Happiness Matters at Work

When employees are happier, they care more deeply about the quality of their work and tend to be more productive. Furthermore, the happier an employee is, the less likely they are to leave their job. In short, organizations improve performance when they treat their employees as individuals who are capable of shaping both their own futures and the future of the company.

On the other hand, unhappy employees can impact organizations in significantly negative ways. Unhappiness is infectious; a single person’s mindset can affect the performance of those around them. If one employee doesn’t feel happy and valued at work, their negative attitude can spread through the company like wildfire.

As author and academic Annie McKee writes for Harvard Business Review, “How we feel is linked to what and how we think. In other words, thought influences emotion, and emotion influences thinking.” When a person is experiencing negative emotions, they can’t help but focus on the source of their discomfort, which distracts them from their tasks and limits their productivity.

Interestingly, McKee notes that studies have also shown overly positive emotions can hinder our ability to perform tasks at a high level. When we experience extremely strong positive emotions, we tend to get distracted by our desire to maintain and prolong that happiness. Pride is one example of a positive emotion that can easily go overboard and lead to negative outcomes like antisocial behavior and aggression.

Organizations need to cultivate employee happiness, but not to excess. That requires doling out the right amount of rewards and praise without overinflating employee positivity. Organizations should also give employees space to experience negative emotions like sadness or guilt. Emotional balance is critical. Organizations that try to block out all emotions aside from happiness are actually doing their employees and themselves a disservice.

How to Increase Happiness in the Workplace 

Creating a happy workplace is about more than just providing ping-pong tables and beanbags. As McKee notes in her Harvard Business Review Article, employees need three things in particular:

  1. Vision: Employees need a precise understanding of what their job entails, how that moves the company forward, and how their role might evolve alongside the company.
  2. Purpose: Employees want to clearly understand how their roles contribute to the big picture. This ties into vision: If an employee is aware of the company’s direction, they can better place their own work in context of the organization’s goals.
  3. Great relationships: Although somewhat cliché, team-building activities foster camaraderie and trust between employees and show them the organization cares about their well-being.

To that list, I would also add a strong company culture. A positive company culture is sure to attract and retain positive employees. Fostering a pleasant work environment where employees feel valued is key to happiness.

Additionally, there are a few concrete steps employers can take to start cultivating employee happiness today:

Let Employees Design Their Own Workspaces

Employees who have control over the layouts of their workspaces often feel happier and more productive. Everything from the color of the walls to the comfort of a chair can affect an employee’s satisfaction on a daily basis. Where possible, allow employees to choose their own chairs, desk layouts, and color schemes. Allow them to add some personal touches, too, like family pictures and stashes of favorite snacks.

Welcome People’s Beliefs

Employees need to feel supported, accepted, and not judged for their personal lives — including religious beliefs and practices, which can often be tricky subjects to tackle at work.

You don’t need to issue company-wide prayer breaks; in fact, this would likely only succeed in alienating some of your employees. You do, however, need to listen thoughtfully to employees’ requests for accommodation. Perhaps an employee is not able to work Sunday mornings because they attend church service. That should be respected. You also need to ensure yours is a culture in which judgment of employees’ personal beliefs is not tolerated.

Communicate Effectively

Effective communication should start before an employee is even hired. Giving prospective employees a comprehensive understanding of the current and future demands of a position during the hiring process can help ensure that you get a new hire who is going to thrive in the role. For existing employees, you should be communicating company milestones, announcements, and opportunities consistently and clearly.

Don’t Micromanage

The freedom to work autonomously is key in maintaining employee self-worth and happiness. When a supervisor requires constant check-ins from an employee, they’re communicating a lack of trust. Taking over an employees’ duties when you are unhappy with their work is even more detrimental. If you’re unsatisfied with an employee’s work, you need to share feedback and help them improve, not do it for them.

Actively Encourage Their Contributions

Employees want to play a role in shaping the company’s future, and it is important they feel their opinions are heard, considered, and acted on. As an added bonus, asking for employee feedback is an easy way to get buy-in for new plans and policies. Employees are more likely to be accepting of and excited about changes when they feel they had a hand in their creation.

The benefits of creating a happy workforce are immense. If you are striving for more growth and productivity in your organization, start by creating a welcoming, supportive, and communicative environment. When employees feel happy, you’re sure to see results.

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