What makes employees happy in the workplace?

It’s great to feel happy at work, but it’s meaning that really engages people, argues Jenny Perkins

What makes employees happy in the workplace?

What makes people happy and engaged within the workplace? How do people gauge happiness at work? Where does it factor on employees' list of priorities? And how can companies specifically address it? 

Happiness at work is usually fleeting, whereas engagement tends to be more permanent. We can feel happy at work when nice things are happening around us – if the sun is shining, if there’s cake in the kitchen or if we’re sitting next to our favourite colleague. However, to feel happy with our work and be deeply engaged with it, that work has to have real meaning for us.

Whereas happiness is about the here and now, engagement is more about weaving together a rich range of experiences.

Many employers provide benefits such as free fruit and social events in the hope that they will make people feel more engaged. These are often lovely perks to have and can make people feel very happy as long as they’re available. Sometimes, if a company is going through a rough patch, the fruit bowl may not always be full and the social events might dry up. If your people are deeply engaged, they’re more likely not to mind too much – because nice as the fruit bowl and the nights out are, they will never provide real meaning.

Real meaning is the foundation of engagement. If work is to have meaning for us, it needs to have purpose, and we need to feel rewarded. We need to understand why our business exists, and to understand the role we play in helping our business to achieve its purpose. 

Some organisations, such as charities, may have a very compelling purpose such as saving lives. Others, such as retailers, may be more focused on customer satisfaction. Whatever your organisation’s purpose, if senior leaders can communicate it with passion, employees are more likely to buy into it.

People who really love their jobs tend to feel that they contribute to the achievement of the company’s purpose. If our work provides meaning, we go beyond fleeting moments of happiness. We enjoy a deeper, more sustained feeling of fulfilment. This is particularly true if managers reinforce their appreciation of employees’ contributions every day.

Connections to others is important for both happiness and engagement. Being part of a team that is focused on shared goals can be very rewarding. Most people also value opportunities to learn from others. At an enterprise-wide level, organisations that encourage collaboration, knowledge sharing and collective responsibility tend to be more agile and innovative.

If we’re stressed, we will feel less happy. However, we can experience a degree of stress and still feel highly engaged. I’d go as far as to say that it’s difficult for work to have true meaning unless you are prepared to take on some challenges that you know might cause stress. The kind of stress that causes unhappiness is the kind we have no control over. So, for example, if we feel our work isn’t valued, that can be stressful. But if we’re working hard and that hard work is appreciated, and we understand how we’re contributing to our organisation’s purpose, that’s more likely to be rewarding.

Finally, to be both happy and engaged at work, you need to achieve a work/life balance that works for you. Think about what matters to you outside of the workplace, and make time for it. If we’re spending time with friends and family and pursuing our passions and interests away from work, we’re much more likely to be focused on pursuing meaning in the workplace too.

It’s great to feel happy at work. But realistically, if your job has true meaning, you’re actually unlikely to feel happy all the time. And that’s absolutely fine.

Jenny Perkins is head of engagement at Cirrus