For happier employees, we need happier managers too

New evidence linking staff happiness and productivity should have profound implications for the way organisations train bosses, says Pat Ashworth

Finally, there’s concrete evidence to support what HR managers have always suspected: happier workers really are more productive. 

In a new research paper presented to the all-party parliamentary group on wellbeing economics at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, 1,793 BT workers across 11 call centres were proven to make more calls – and improve their selling rates – when their mood was happier.

Oxford professor Jan-Emmanual De Neve said there has "never been such strong evidence” to support the popular management theory that encouraging happiness at work isn’t just good for employees but for business. For those of us who work in learning, development and HR, the proof is welcome – but hardly a surprise. The real question is: what will we do about it?

The research adds further weight to the idea that organisations need to rethink the role of leaders and managers: how they’re selected, how their performance is measured and, crucially, how they’re trained. 

The study showed that many of the factors which impact employees’ mood, and hence their productivity, are beyond our control. We can’t prevent rainy days (which were proven to affect work), and our influence may also be limited when it comes to salary, job security and the content of the work.

However, we do have access to one large lever which, according to the research, has a significant impact on outcomes: relationships with colleagues and managers.

In his talk, titled Why Leaders Eat Last, ethnographer Simon Sinek explained the brain chemistry behind good leadership – and why mangers have such a powerful influence on our happiness at work. The stress hormone cortisol once served a useful purpose by making us more alert to danger. To achieve this heightened state of readiness, it suppresses growth, social instincts, and immune response. And while it was a short-term state to keep us alive, that worked well.

But if our work induces ongoing stress, we’re subject to a constant drip-feed of cortisol. That can overflow into undesirable behaviour, and potentially has long-term health impacts.

It also affects our ability to work in a team. Cortisol suppresses the release of oxytocin, the hormone that makes us empathetic and generous. Meanwhile, we’re anthropologically programmed to respond to cortisol in others, so elevated levels of stress are catching. 

And we get those cues disproportionately from the behaviour of – you guessed it – our leaders. 

Managers who are themselves stressed will naturally exhibit less compassion and empathy, and prompt similar responses in the teams they lead. That means our relationships with colleagues and with our manager are closely linked – so helping managers to manage their own wellbeing is an essential part of workplace happiness and productivity.

Mindfulness: an underrated management tool

A manager who is stressed or anxious can make their team less cooperative. By contrast, a leader who exhibits empathy and compassion can create a stronger team bond, generating happiness and – as proven by the research – productivity.

The science journalist and author Daniel Goleman talks about three kinds of empathy, all of which are important in leaders who want to get the best from their teams: cognitive empathy (the ability to see someone else’s point of view), emotional empathy (the ability to feel what someone else is feeling) and empathic concern (which feeds the desire to actually help the other person, based on what you know). 

But to exhibit more empathy, managers need to keep their own cortisol levels under control. One powerful way to achieve this is by practising mindfulness techniques. 

Mindfulness isn’t regularly discussed as a central part of leadership development, but the business impact can be significant. But matters like mindfulness, empathy and wellbeing need to be approached in a clear, structured way, if they’re to be accepted in the business. An effective, four-step process might include the following:

  • Measure employee engagement with a good-quality survey. A clear picture of your current culture is an important baseline for your intervention. It’s worthwhile investing in nuanced measures that give an accurate view of “what it’s like to work here”. A separate measure of faith in line managers and/or leadership might also be useful;
  • Invest in line management training, with a focus on self-awareness. This will help managers reflect critically about the climate they create in their team, learn a degree of cognitive control over thoughts and emotions, and estimate how much they allow stress or anxiety to leak out to others at difficult times;
  • Introduce further, tailored support to address gaps revealed by the first two steps. Measures might include workshops and quality coaching, to define goals and establish good habits. Some managers will be open to change; others might need encouragement, as changing learned behaviours can feel strange at first
  • Re-measure to confirm the effect of your work – not only in employee happiness and engagement, but also in business outcomes like attendance, productivity and performance. This evidence is essential to demonstrate return on investment, and convince further managers to participate.

Often, leaders get the behaviour they deserve: their unspoken behaviour sets the tone for the team. So if you want to drive happiness and productivity, give your managers the tools to manage themselves first.

Pat Ashworth is director of learning solutions at AdviserPlus