Understanding the Keys to Employee Happiness and Why Work/Life Balance Remains Critical

workplace happiness depicted by stickers that say be happy it's monday

If you’re on social media, you’ve probably seen the memes bemoaning the approach of another work week.

At first we “LOL” at them then share on social media. But for some of us, deep inside, we can’t help but feel a twinge of dread with having to face another week of heavy workloads, boring long hours, or stressful interactions.

What is it exactly about work that many of us dread, and what changes can be made to improve workplace situations that are the origins of our unhappiness?

Defining Workplace Happiness

Dr. Christine Carter, senior fellow at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of “The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work,” defines workplace happiness this way: “When we are talking about happiness – and why happy workers are more productive, engaged, and better for your bottom line – we’re using happiness as an umbrella term for something much larger. The type of happiness that’s great for the workplace involves the ability to access a wide range of positive emotions.” Dr. Carter explains some of these emotions include hope, optimism, confidence, gratitude, inspiration, and awe.

Cutting-edge organizations and workplace happiness experts have concluded not only are happy workers more productive, resilient, loyal, and impact the bottom line, but it’s important to the overall well-being of each individual to be in a role in which they can thrive and adds meaning to their lives. Understanding root causes of employee unhappiness, it’s widely believed, is vital to implementing changes that lead to organizational success.

Robert Half, one of the world’s largest human resource consulting firms and the “world’s most admired company,”  has made it their mission to prioritize job satisfaction and work productivity. “We know that workplace happiness truly impacts the bottom line,” says Paul McDonald, senior executive director at Robert Half. “Employee engagement and satisfaction levels must be a focal point for companies to remain competitive today.”

How Companies Can Influence Happiness in the Workplace

To understand how companies can improve workplace happiness, Robert Half and Happiness Works recently conducted a survey of 12,000 working professionals to uncover key factors that influence their on-the-job satisfaction.

Their main finding revealed most people are generally happy at work, scoring 71 on a scale of 0 – 100. This number fluctuated, however, depending on the size of the company, with employees at smaller companies tending to be happier and the largest the least happiest. Paradoxically, 1/3 of respondents were thinking about looking for another job within six months. This is in line with a finding described in Gallup's State of the American Workplace report, in which only about 1/3 of employees say they’re engaged on the job and 55% claim to not care about their jobs at all. Most revealing, Gallup’s report explained a lot of workplace unhappiness comes down to managers' communication problems – not helping employees feel enthusiastic about the future; not communicating what's expected of them; not helping them to feel recognized for doing good work; and not informing them of what their benefits are, such as health insurance, paid time off, and professional development programs.

To give you a better idea of exactly what employees say they want out of their jobs, here’s a rundown of factors described in Robert Half and Happiness Works’ report that employers can consider for improving their workplace conditions.

  1. Ensure a proper fit in the employee’s role and within the company by thoroughly checking references and carefully analyzing qualifications, technical abilities, and soft skills.

  2. Empower employees by allowing them to have autonomy, make important decisions, and offer input and feedback. “Encourage team members to stretch their problem-solving skills by taking smart, strategic risks,” says McDonald. “But also make it known that you are available to offer input and support so that they don’t find themselves floundering alone.”

  3. Show appreciation toward your employees’ efforts and commitment. Demotivating comments can drag down staff for weeks but positive support works to counter that.

  4. Help employees understand the importance of their role in the overall objective of the company. This provides opportunities for staff to feel that their work is interesting and meaningful.

  5. Instill a sense of fairness and respect by being transparent in decision making, providing opportunities to allow employees to be heard when they feel a sense of unfairness, and offering a fair salary range for your company’s industry.

  6. Promote healthy workplace relationships by creating opportunities for positive interaction among team members. Make sure leaders are cognizant of being a role model for authentic positivity.

24/7 Work-Life

One expert has an entirely different viewpoint about workplace happiness. English sociologist and economist William Davies lays out his conclusions in his book, "The Happiness Industry," about what’s really at the heart of all this striving for employee happiness and how we are headed in the wrong direction with our push for gauging it. “Long-hour cultures, a dominant highly competitive ethos, people striving to outdo each other or outdo themselves—that’s what creates a lot of the stress that then needs to be alleviated through things like meditation and mindfulness. All the workplace happiness gurus ever say is, ‘we need to teach more happiness habits to people.’ They’re not saying, ‘We need to reform workplaces.’”

What we’re also failing to realize, he adds, is that we are creeping toward an unconscious status of being plugged into work all the time with little or no boundaries from our personal lives – and there’s little effort on the part of corporations to stop that from happening. Davies said we should instead strive to understand happiness and unhappiness, not just monitor it and measure it.

“Being in the Zone”

Others, like Harvard University researcher Matthew A. Killingsworth, believe it’s about being fully engaged in what we’re doing at work so that our minds don’t wander, which can be described as “being in the zone.” If we’re finding it difficult to become engaged at work to begin with, then we need to look at the factors that are preventing us from feeling that way. Killingsworth suggests four workplace strategies to promote more productive mindstates:

  1. Avoid giving employees too much work to prevent oppressive and unproductive thoughts about feeling overworked.

  2. Don’t give them too little work.

  3. Reduce distractions. Keep work areas as private as possible and reduce noise levels.

  4. Implement work/life balance strategies such as the ability to telecommute at least part of the time, allow flexible hours, and provide generous paid leave.

Understanding the Importance of Work-Life Balance

Practically all the factors uncovered by Robert Half/Happiness Works indeed seem like reasonable determiners to increasing the well-being of a company’s workforce. Taking Killingsworth and Davies’ nonconventional viewpoints into consideration, however, it’s fair to also say finding ways to allow employees to experience work-life balance appears to be one of the major keys to employee well-being. Strategies such as delineating work-life boundaries and accommodating the daily needs and variations to one’s personal life need to be considered in developing a healthy workplace culture.

When companies realize they hold the power to influencing their own success by ensuring workplace happiness – and promoting work-life balance – so begins their investment in the long-term overall health of their organization…and that of their employees.


We have numerous offerings that can assist your management team in influencing engagement and workplace happiness. Contact us to discuss training solutions if you’d like to explore further.