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The science of happiness at work


Richard Branson once said; “There is no magic formula for a great company culture. The key is just to treat your staff how you would like to be treated”.
Something so simple, yet so complex when it comes to staff interaction in this day and age.

Happiness in the workplace … what does this mean for South African businesses?

A few years ago, I was sitting in a spacious reception, at a large corporations’ head office in Sandton, when four employees huddled around the reception desk and began bickering about something that had happened that morning at work. I turned to my colleague and said; ‘People are so unhappy at work. I wish HR would start focusing on these issues’. This was the catalyst that drove McGowan to begin researching mental wellbeing focused strategies in corporate South Africa. I quickly discovered how essential this focus is, and how far behind the rest of the world we are.

Various research groups, including positive psychology, are employing the scientific method to research questions about what "happiness" is, and how it might be attained.

Happiness is a fuzzy concept and can mean many different things to many people. Part of the challenge of the science of happiness is to identify different concepts of happiness, and apply them practically to a corporate environment - incentivising staff over and above remuneration.

Current Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) are failing, and many companies are striving to change the culture of corporate South Africa, challenging the status quo. The EAP is no longer enough and should not be considered the way forward when it comes to implementing effective, proactive, emotional-based wellness campaigns.

In a complex, stressful and operationally involved business environment, staff must be mentally equipped to deal with various demanding situations while managing subordinates, suppliers and clients. This is crucial to success. As an employer, ensuring your employees are motivated and able to work productively, as well as eliminating staff turnover, are necessities.

Unfortunately, reactive, tired and poorly attended campaigns will not achieve these objectives. Employees are humans. The development of their skills, their commitment and their pursuit of happiness is vital - not only for a successful workforce, but also for a successful business.

This focus on happiness is based on proven science. As people we love what we do if it; makes us happy, highlights our self-worth, gives us a sense of purpose, allows us to be creative, and provides social interaction. Do you know whether your employees’ emotional needs are being met? Do you know them well enough to answer that question?

When companies start focusing on these aspects of their employee’s wellness, research proves that happiness raises nearly every business and educational outcome; increased sales by 37 per cent, productivity by 31 per cent, accuracy on tasks by 19 per cent, as well as a myriad of other life and health improvements. A physically healthy employee does not equal a happy employee, and happy employees are the ones that cultivate good work and drive businesses.

The assumption that the focus on happiness is all about “esoteric nonsense” and “too many feelings getting in the way of business”. In fact, the measurement of happiness is a scientific process and has been categorically proven to work.

In the 1980s, when the notion of happiness at work was beginning to appear in corporate spaces, two researchers, Deci and Ryan, provided breakthrough findings in terms of why people work. The researchers identified six reasons why people work. Three of these increase performance, while the other three hurt it. “The three positive motivators are play, purpose and potential. The indirect motives that hurt performance are emotional pressure, economic pressure and inertia (when staff lose sight of why they are doing the work, they merely 'do it' to get through it).

More recent research has discovered that high performance corporate cultures are those which tend to focus on the enablers of play, purpose and potential and minimise the others. The benefits? Happier, productive workforces and increased business.

The science of happiness is changing the way we work, think and live. We need people to own it, accept it and manage it. An essential piece of advice, one that we tend to forget in this wild, crazy, busy world of ours; happiness is not found out there, it lies within you.

Liane McGowan is the Founder of Happy Monday CC.

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