Four ways to make your workplace happier

20 May 2022

Given how much of our lives we spend at work, it stands to reason that if we find 'the day job' stimulating and engaging - enjoyable even - we're going to be more productive, creative and happier all round.

Certainly, the research is compelling. To highlight just a few recent studies: companies with happy employees outperform their competition by 20%; employees who report being happy at work take ten times fewer sick days; every 2% increase in employee happiness translates to 1% extra revenue growth.

In fact, whether we're measuring customer satisfaction, innovation, productivity, profitability, or growth in share value, companies that proactively work to make their staff feel happier, more engaged and fulfilled generally do better.

Sometimes finding that sweet spot where work is something you actually look forward to is a matter of luck. It's perhaps because you've found a niche you feel passionate about or where you have a particular expertise; or its challenge may be fulfilling in itself or it's because you feel valued and respected by your colleagues.

If that's you, great, well done. Unfortunately, you may be in something of a minority.

According to some estimates, more than half of UK employees say they are unhappy and 36% are seriously considering leaving their jobs as a result. It is also estimated that work-related anxiety and stress costs the UK economy nearly £35bn each year.

So, what can we do - whatever our position at work - to turn this around? Are there tools or approaches we can use to make either the team we're managing or just our own working life a happier place to be?

The short answer is 'yes' - but it may involve asking some hard questions of yourself, your team or your organisation. Here are four ways to put a smile back into your corporate life.

1. Get the basics right

This is probably more one for managers than employees but if you can make your organisation an enjoyable place physically to be at day in and day out, then you're already halfway to making it a happier place.

What do we mean by 'the basics'? First, the physical or virtual environment (or both). So, things like access to daylight, technology that works, decent workstations, somewhere pleasant to eat or decompress, comfortable meeting rooms or collaborative spaces.

Second, the job or role itself. So, making sure it's not all toxic demands and long hours (even if there might be moments of stress or pressure). That pay and reward is commensurate with what's being asked. That roles and responsibilities are clearly defined. That people feel respectfully managed (and we'll look at this in more detail shortly). That there is visible, fair and achievable career progression.

These are all, of course, things that should be relatively standard in any 'good' workplace. If you haven't got these basics right, however, expecting people then to feel happy about the day-to-day grind being asked of them is likely to be much more of an uphill struggle.

2. Recognise the power of thanks

Recognition in the workplace - the satisfaction of knowing you've done a good job because your boss or a colleague has said 'thank you' - is absolutely critical to creating a happier culture and environment.

Clearly, there can be limits. Gushing praise for all and every small task completed can quickly lose its value. Nevertheless, knowing that the hard graft you're putting is recognised, appreciated and valued, ideally by your peers, immediate managers and leaders, will go a long way to making you feel happier about being at work. Crucially, of course, the opposite also holds true in terms of feeling unhappy or unrecognised.

At a practical level, this may mean, yes, financial recognition, such as bonuses or a pay rise. Recognition can also be less tangible, however - a simple verbal, emailed or written thank you; regular appraisal and constructive feedback; an 'employee of the week' board; an occasional team meal out or other event; pizza thoughtfully bought in if you're having to work late; being able to nominate colleagues who've gone the extra mile for vouchers or other rewards through your benefits platform, and so on.

3. Model and pass down good behaviour (especially to line managers)

We've shown that a happy workplace tends to be one where those working within it feel valued, recognised and rewarded for the efforts they put in day in and day out.

A key part of this comes back to creating a respectful environment. A respectful workplace is one in which integrity and professionalism are valued, where diversity and inclusion are celebrated, where dialogue is prioritised over conflict, and where people - whatever their level in the organisation - are treated with civility and, well, respect.

This, to be clear, doesn't mean people can't be challenged or pushed to get better or aren't expected to work hard or deliver on results. It just means an emphasis is placed on ensuring all these happen in an environment where relationships are collaborative, constructive and 'grown up'.

This may not happen overnight, especially if managers are used to old-fashioned 'command and control' relationships. To embed this sort of change, it may therefore need to be modelled and prioritised from the top down.

Leaders will need to make it very clear to line managers how they are expected to manage, support and communicate with their teams and, if need be, offer appropriate tools and training.

They will also need to show or model this approach themselves in how they manage people. This is important for two reasons. First, if senior leaders are seen to be modelling this sort of behaviour, it emphasises it is important to the organisation and, in fact, expected.

In turn, second, this gives 'permission' for others to act in the same, respectful way - especially if it is made clear that opposite behaviours will not be tolerated - so that it permeates down through the organisation.

4. Focus on personal as well as professional happiness

We all know the old proverb 'all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy'. It means that, without time off or away from work, a person can become bored, boring or both. Coming back to the fact we can spend as much as a third of our life at work, if we find that third boring or unfulfilling, the chances are that we will feel less happy generally.

To that end, and counter-intuitively, one way to make yourself happier at work is to spend less time at work - and this can mean either physically at work or emotionally invested in work.

If you can carve out genuine work/life balance, so learn to switch off from work once away from it, to properly relax and recharge while on holiday, to have interests outside of work, then you're likely to come to work each day more refreshed, engaged and (probably) optimistic about what you have to do.

Having something outside of work - a hobby or a pastime, holidays to look forward to, friends' networks, even family life - can make even the most box-ticking role more bearable and meaningful.

You may never leap out of bed desperate to get to work. Nevertheless, you'll be happier about the prospect of 'another day at the coalface' - and probably perform better as a result - especially if you know the payoff is that it is funding the other 'stuff' in your life that you really value and enjoy.

About the author

Nic Paton is one of the country's foremost journalists on workplace health, safety and wellbeing, and is editor of Occupational Health & Wellbeing magazine. He also regularly writes on the health and employee benefits and health insurance markets.