By Alessandra Malito
Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection
Miserable at work? You’re not alone, but there are things you can do to make it better.
Happiness at work isn’t just related to your salary or benefits package. It comes from having a purpose, and yes, even some friends.
In her new book “How to Be Happy at Work” (Harvard Business Press), Annie McKee, an adviser to Fortune 500 company leaders and a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, says one of the most important factors of work is how happy it makes the employee and, yet, it’s also one of the most neglected. Acknowledging the value happiness brings to a job can make even the most demanding boss less stressful and the death of Summer Fridays less of a bummer.
Companies are trying new ways to make employees happier, not only for their sense of well-being, but to keep them longer. Startups are well-known for injecting fun into the workplace with amenities like built-in pubs. Other companies are homing in on employees’ financial wellness, and some have added student loan repayment to their list of benefits or extended parental leave to include any time during the baby’s first year. Other companies are even inviting employees’ dogs to come to work with them for a day.
Miserable at work? You’re not alone. More than half of U.S. employees were not engaged at work between 2010 and 2012 according to Gallup’s recent State of the American Workplace report, which collected data from more than 195,000 employees. Many of those who were not engaged wanted a reason to be, such as the company showing them how to perform their best.
Happiness at work doesn’t just affect the individual. The entire company’s bottom line can get a boost from a worker who is in a better mood: People who are happier at work are more productive, according to an experiment of 700 British people conducted by the Social Market Foundation and the University of Warwick’s Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy. In the experiment, randomly selected individuals were made happier with a 10-minute comedy clip or with drinks and snacks, and researchers found those happier employees were 12% more productive.
McKee spoke with MarketWatch about being happy at work, and how it’s possible:
MarketWatch: What do people need in order to be happy at work?
Annie McKee: We need to feel we make a difference, that’s No. 1. No. 2: We need to be hopeful about the future and our work needs to fit into that. And No. 3, which is kind of simple: We need friends at work. We need to feel that the relationships we have are positive, that they care about us or we care about them. That there’s trust or safety.
MarketWatch: How can people start working towards that?
McKee: Accept that happiness matters and it’s not just nice to have. We are smarter when we feel good. When we feel happy, excited and committed, our brains work better, we take more information in, we process it better, we make better decisions. So step one is accepting happiness matters and we deserve to be happy at work.
It sounds simple but a lot of people buy into the old-fashioned myth that work is hard, work is grueling, we should just be happy we have a job. We are shooting ourselves in the foot if we believe in that old myth. It is tempting to blame others for our happiness. If you have a bad boss, it does impact us, but we can do a lot more than we sometimes think we can. Start analyzing what matters to us, what are we passionate about doing, more of what we like at work. We have more power to craft than we think we do.
MarketWatch: What can companies do to make employees happier?
McKee: The organization’s culture has a huge impact on what we feel about work and what we do, so people who are in senior manager roles, making sure that the values and rules of the road support positive relationships, support trust, support passion, support goals.
MarketWatch: How does happiness change based on your role? Take an entry-level worker versus a leader.
McKee: When we first start working, most people are really excited. We do learn how to achieve results during that period of our lives but it is easy to lose sight of why we joined in the first place.
The higher you go, the more stress you have. We have a stress epidemic in most organizations. And the higher you go, it’s no longer just about you and your happiness, it’s about us and our happiness.
‘We need friends at work. We need to feel that the relationships we have are positive, that they care about us or we care about them. That there’s trust or safety.’Annie McKee, author of “How to Be Happy at Work”
MarketWatch: Everyone strives for that perfect work-life balance. How do you achieve that?
McKee: That phrase “work-life balance” has done more harm than good. It creates this magic formula and, if we figure out everything, we will be fine at home and at work. For most professionals, there is no magic formula. It is more about knowing how to manage our attitude and feelings. So when you’re at work being fully present at work, and at home with family and friends being fully present for that part, and not feeling torn. It really is about understanding how to manage the choices and recognizing most of us can work 24/7 — we carry it around in our pockets — and that’s not good for us.
MarketWatch: Companies have ways to make employees happy, such as bring-your-dog-to-work day and working from home, but do these perks really affect happiness?
McKee: Those kinds of perks or allowances tell employees they are trusted and tell them they are respected for who they are and what they care about in the rest of their lives, and that goes a long way to making people feel committed to their organizations and bosses.
McKee: We are essentially living in a new world where more of that will be possible, and we have to keep our eyes open and watch how work patterns affect us. We need to feel that we are having an impact. One of the dangers of contract work or the gig economy is that it can be always working from home, so it takes extra effort to build friendships when we’re not physically present.
MarketWatch: I know the path to happiness is a journey, but how can we get started?
McKee: It all starts with self-awareness and understanding what makes you tick and what matters to you. That’s not something that happens overnight. We’re so busy that quiet time or reflection time gets pushed to the end of the list. If you’re tired and stressed from work, there’s a temptation to go behind the office door and shut yourself away. We have to do the opposite: Reach out to a friend and connect with them, not just to gripe and moa but to have a little bit of fun.
(This interview was edited for style and space.)