How can HR foster true happiness at work?

24 Sep 2021 By Arran Heal

Forget Friday drinks and office table football – people professionals’ ability to create a culture of trust and openness will lead to real happiness, says Arran Heal

For some employees, happiness and work just don’t belong in the same sentence. It doesn’t matter how many perks are on offer, the squashy sofas, table football sessions, the Friday drinks, even a culture of gushing praise. Work means pressure and politics. And it’s all the hidden workings of a workplace culture, the build-up of psychological and emotional angst over time, that have the biggest influence on experience and potential for happiness.

That’s the challenge for anyone involved with the International Week of Happiness at Work this week. Initially an idea from the Netherlands, there is now a full manifesto and activities globally. Who would argue with the founding premise that the world would be a better place if people were happier at work? Happiness at work is about meaningful work, healthy relationships, development, and having fun. And about stopping unnecessary rules, powerplay, complicated processes and procedures, absenteeism, unmotivated colleagues, and terrible managers, according to the organisers.

The Happiness at Work organisers suggest a range of ways forward: inspirational talks from happiness experts; encouraging positive feedback, team games to get to know each other better; more social events, and writing a team manifesto around improving happiness levels. 

But all of these encourage a superficial veneer of happiness. Activities that demand we all join in and express our enthusiasm, meanwhile knowing that preaching a mantra of ‘must-have happiness’ will not do anything to address all those awkward, unmentionable grievances, doubts and anxieties.

The reality is that happiness is the product of facing up to the difficult stuff, from having a culture of trust that makes it possible. From accepting the warts and all of working life, not insisting people smile more. The job of HR isn’t to encourage happiness. Happiness is a natural human state – it’s the artificial barriers, the dust and noise of our worries about work, that block our happiness.

If someone felt their boss didn’t listen to them, could they say so? Could they speak up about subtle forms of bullying going on? Can they talk about a long-standing personality clash that is making their life a misery? Is it really okay to discuss looming problems for the organisation? HR might say yes, no problem, we encourage people to be open and there are channels for any kind of complaint. But that doesn’t mean people feel safe enough to speak up, that they trust the attitudes and levels of understanding among management. 

For organisations, creating an open culture isn’t about opening up a flood of debate over causes of unhappiness. There needs to be active interventions and management of ‘good’ conversations led by HR. In practice that means having the right skills and processes working across the organisation. That way there is a virtuous circle of good practice and trust, growing evidence of how conflict of all kinds and at all levels is dealt with in grown-up, professional ways. People learn best of all from their peers. 

So HR needs to be thinking about what makes for a ‘clear air’ culture: where people at all levels have the skills to deal with everyday clashes and difficult situations, they have what we call ‘conversational integrity’, a combination of empathy, self-awareness and all-round nous. Employees also have to believe in the systems that are in place for when things go wrong, know they can trust the mediation service and the trained internal staff or external professionals brought in; and in the last resort, that investigations will be carried out to the highest standards.

It’s in this clear-air context that organisations see and feel the return of a culture of openness and honesty and all the benefits of engagement, motivation and goodwill that come with it. For any workplace, that’s happiness. 

Arran Heal is managing director of CMP

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