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Happiness at Work - Possibility or Pipe Dream?

We attended a Happiness at Work? Seminar at Cass Business School last week.
The panel of speakers were:

Andrew Oswald - Professor of Economics at the University of Warwick and Acting Research Director at the Institute for the Study of Labor, Bonn.

Cliff Oswick is Professor in Organization Theory and Deputy Dean, Cass Business School, University of London.

Nic Marks is a board member at Action for Happiness and the Founding Director of Happiness Works.

The seminar was opened by Peter Fleming, Professor of Management at Cass Business School, who told us that he had organised the event because there are high levels of anxiety around work and he wanted to explore whether Happiness at Work really was possible.

Andrew Oswald gave a whole raft of statistics – and I have to admit, stats aren't my thing, so I'm going to give you the gist! – which basically show that happiness is possible at work, especially where small freedoms are given, such as the ability to move your desk should you want to. The top two priorities are job security and interesting work, followed closely by autonomy, opportunities for promotion and feeling your role is useful to society. Studies have shown that leaders have lower levels of the stress drug, cortisol, and anxiety, but around two years after promotion these levels even out to around the same as everyone else. It is also believed that levels of job satisfaction, and mental health, drop at around the age of 40, rising again later. So it seems there is such a thing as a mid-life crisis.

Cliff Oswick opened by reminding us that happiness is not the same as wellbeing. Happiness can be a deep or surface phenomenon and corporate happiness is often tackled at that surface level. In the 70s, 80s and early 90s it was all about individual happiness, but since the mid-90s it seems to be a collective happiness we're aiming for e.g. dress down Friday. Cliff feels that the phrase 'a happy worker is a productive worker' isn't necessarily the case and job satisfaction isn't happiness. He said that if you actually aggregate all the statistics from studies, such as those Andrew mentioned, the evidence isn't actually compelling. Some people are simply happy being miserable, or being un-productive and Cliff believes that 'an engaged worker is a productive worker' may be a more accurate phrase.

Nic Marks started by saying happiness is a serious business and is really the popular name for how well life is going. Happiness is a regulatory control mechanism within us – Nic referred to the 'guvnor' valve in the James Watt steam engine – studies undertaken by Barbara Fredrickson reviewing team
meetings showed that the happiest teams had a ratio in the range of 1:3 to 8:1 positive to negative comments within their meetings.

The panel then took a few questions from the audience and it became apparent that they disagreed over some points. I'm sure everyone would agree, the definition of happiness is rather subjective, but it seems that it really is possible to be happy at work.

Make sure you go and tell your boss what those top priorities for job satisfaction are and watch this space for our next blog, which shows how being happy at work can have a positive effect on your whole life!For more information on how to be happy and flourish at work, read our Engagement Boost page.

If you're a manager and you need to look at the employee engagement of your team, check out our 'Engaging your team' session. We've designed it specifically for team leaders and managers.


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