May 17, 2019
The Kingdom of Bhutan famously makes it a matter of public policy to focus the nation’s resources on maximizing what has been called Gross National Happiness . Essentially, the country has taken the rare step of placing well-being above GDP. While this approach has baffled the West when it first happened several decades ago, other countries have taken notice. Today, the idea of maximizing workplace well-being is making its way into corporate agendas. Why? In part because it’s becoming clear that employee well-being and the company’s financial success are synergistic instead of being unrelated alternatives.
According to Martin Seligman, author of Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, well-being is more than feelings of happiness. Well-being includes relationships, meaning, engagement and accomplishment as well. From a financial perspective, the business costs of low well-being at work are tightly bundled with the enormous costs of employee turnover (and turnover is at a current high). A recent survey conducted by my company found higher workplace well-being to be positively correlated with factors including job satisfaction and so-called “organizational citizenship behaviors,” like contributing to organizational objectives and voluntarily helping co-workers.
Well-being was also found to be negatively correlated with behaviors including looking for a new job. With turnover at a high and job seekers in many industries holding all the cards in the recruitment game, stimulating organizational citizenship and limiting turnover should be a key part of every firm’s hiring and retention strategy. And well-being is closely linked to that process.
Can well-being at work be created?
There’s additional evidence that workplace well-being is correlated with factors associated with lower turnover. Yet how do we know that increased well-being actually causes positive outcomes for organizations, rather than it being simply a result of working for a great company? Statistically, we can’t say for sure, but the aforementioned study does reveal several factors reportedly able to increase well-being. These factors don’t simply boil down to “working for a great company.” Instead, the factors actually causing well-being are more individual and much more task-oriented.
Most interestingly, they are also factors that aren’t directly linked with performance (which challenges the assumptions of the achievement-recognition model for motivation and retention).
As it turns out, encouraging employees to slog through boring, difficult work entirely outside their personal wheelhouse isn’t good for retention, even if they are rewarded, awarded and recognized for their efforts. Instead, the survey found tasks that promote well-being the most ...
- Interest employees
- Make employees feel positive
- Allow employees to learn something new
- Allow employees to take breaks when needed
- Challenge employees and add to their skills and knowledge
No doubt there are times in every organization when it’s necessary to buckle down, bite the bullet and do subjectively unpleasant tasks. However, there may be costs to employee’s well-being and a subsequent tangible set of costs for the company’s retention and their hiring process.
To reap the positive effects of well-being, organizations should work to create a day-to-day culture of encouraging employees to do work that interests them — work that gives them a sense of growth and allows them to add to their skills and knowledge.
It shouldn’t be surprising that constantly asking a person to do work that makes them feel negatively and doesn’t interest them can grind down their well-being over time. That said, in our current job-seeker’s job market, it’s critical for managers to not overlook this particular lesson.
Relationships are key.
Beyond task-oriented factors of well-being, the study confirmed findings from other research that indicate one of the most significant factors for well-being at work is the quality of at-work relationships. Research also shows that the average person spends over 90,000 hours of their life at work, often putting in more hours with co-workers than with their own families and friends. The importance of positive and supportive at-work relationships underscores the need for organizations to deliberately invest in creating work environments that nurture and support healthy social relationships between employees.
The key takeaway is that Bhutan may be onto something. Focusing on increasing real well-being has effects on how well companies attract and retain talent, which in turn significantly influences how well a firm creates value and meets its goals.
While these findings hold true regardless of the state of the economy and the job market, they’re particularly salient when attracting talent in highly skilled roles.
Notably absent in the list of factors highlighted by this survey are any of the perks many companies (especially in high tech) offer to try to attract talent. High salaries, free food, hammocks and draught beer in the office might be good for simply filling seats, but they’re not on the radar of long-term well-being. Consequently, the old wisdom is holding true: Money can’t buy happiness. But workplace happiness and better business outcomes might just go hand-in-hand.
Sherrie Haynie, Director of US Professional Services for The Myers-Briggs Company, leads Practitioner Development and Consulting Services.