In a recent webinar hosted by the MRS, happiness expert and author, Jennifer Moss, set out to debunk the myth that encouraging happiness in the workplace is a waste of time by proving the impact of doing so on the bottom line. 

I was a little sceptical at first it must be said.  It makes perfect sense that a happier workforce is a healthier, more productive one.  But putting my commercial hat on, I wondered how far the encouragement of happiness at work should extend and whether it was all just a little bit millennial and fluffy.  Sure, whilst I secretly might like to devote time in my working day to practising mindfulness - one of the recommended strategies for promoting happiness – doing so is hardly going to help me get that difficult report over the line after all!  Or is it …

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New scientific evidence

A body of scientific evidence now exists that proves happier people are healthier people.  They have lower blood pressure, stronger immune systems and stronger resilience to negative life events.  When they encounter failure or disappointment they are much more able to bounce back.   The converse has been shown to be true of more negative people.  Happy people see their mistakes or setbacks as a chance to learn and to improve not as something to be avoided or to beat themselves up about.  And that’s a massively powerful mindset to encourage in the workforce if we want people to be creative and take some degree of risk to achieve better commercial outcomes e.g. a breakthrough innovation. 

But what struck me the most is that happiness (or the tendency to be happy) is not entirely down to genetics, it can also be trained.  Estimates vary, but it was suggested 50% of our happiness is genetically determined, 10% is generated by the things we own (or the things society tells us should make us happy) e.g. new shoes or a promotion, whilst a whopping 40% is based on the things we actively do to promote the conditions for happiness.  In other words, we have a large degree of control over how happy we are and can train it.  Top athletes and sports stars have been in on this secret for many years.  Indeed, psychological fitness training is now considered just as important as physical fitness and technical skills development in driving elite sports performance. 

Mind over matter

But we need to work hard to train happiness within ourselves and within our employees.  As human beings we have a strong negativity bias.  In other words, we are far more easily lured to negative things such as overeating, being lazy, smoking, complaining etc. than positive things.  Being on a diet at present I can certainly relate to my strong urges to indulge in all the things I shouldn’t be eating over the things I should!  The good news is that thanks to something called neuroplasticity our brains are re-wiring all the time.  By doing activities that encourage the conditions for happiness we can change the structure of our grey matter permanently and improve our propensity to be happy.  This is welcoming news because research has shown people that have high wellness go above and beyond in the workplace as they feel more engaged and passionate.

If it’s good enough for Google

One of the business case studies put forward in the webinar was that of ‘Project Aristotle’ at Google.  Senior managers had set out to explore the factors that contributed to high performing teams in a bid to emulate their success.  Did these teams have certain traits that set them apart and made them more successful in terms of ideation, innovation and so forth?  What was their key to success?  Over 5 years they analysed the traits of 168 teams to get to this answer.  And what they found was both simple and astonishing.  The top 10% of high performing teams were all essentially just nice! This niceness manifested itself in 2 core ways:

1.       Conversational turn taking e.g. employees feeling they could be heard in a team setting

2.       High social sensitivity e.g. people in the team genuinely caring about each other and tuning in to each other’s’ needs and feelings

People in these teams felt respected and valued by their peers and, in turn, this made them happier in themselves thereby fuelling the conditions for innovation. 

The best things in life are free

And if the Google example isn’t compelling enough, consider the fact that encouraging happiness in the workplace does not have to cost the earth.  Indeed, simple no cost or low-cost initiatives such as having a visible gratitude wall or encouraging people to take a YouTube ‘laughter break’ rather than a smoking break could have a big impact for virtually no outlay.    

For no cost at all, leaders and managers could simply diarise time to send a ‘thank you’ note every Friday to someone who has done something good.  Companies can also build more cognitive empathy into their ways of working e.g. holding meetings or brainstorms where rules are enforced to allow everyone to speak without being talked over to encourage a culture of active listening. 

Giving employees constructive feedback in their appraisals is also key.  Managers shouldn’t shy away from those difficult or awkward conversations.  From the start of their careers, executives need to be exposed to a degree of pressure, so they can develop coping mechanisms and resilience.  Coddling people helps no-one.  This can be a huge catalyst to their personal growth and development in the workplace over the long-term. 

Compassionate capitalism

All in all, it turns out that compassion and capitalism can go hand in hand after all meaning happiness and mental health in the workplace is something all companies should take seriously.  After all, it might just boost both you people and profits at the same time. 

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