Everybody wants to be happy at work. Research has shown that happy employees are 12% more productive than their unhappy counterparts, and suggests that happier people may live longer and healthier lives. According to the World Happiness Report (WHR), an annual study that attempts to measure causes of happiness around the world, simply having a job is a major step toward happiness. But what makes people happy at work? Here are five key contributing factors.
1. Making (enough) money
Predictably, higher wages are tied to higher levels of worker satisfaction. The WHR reports that people “in well-paying jobs are happier and more satisfied with their lives and jobs than those in the lower income brackets.” But though researchers agree that higher wages make people happier, they are only one part of a larger picture.
For example, the WHR found that additional wages mattered much more to people with lower base incomes—earning an extra $100 means a lot more to someone with a relatively low salary than to someone with a higher salary. Another study found that money has no impact on happiness beyond a threshold income of $75,000 per year. Essentially, having money matters, but only up to a point. Financial security and a comfortable lifestyle do make people happier. But though excessive wealth may seem desirable, it doesn’t actually make people happier.
2. Having a good boss
Research has also shown that having a competent boss is one of the most crucial factors affecting workplace happiness. In fact, when Benjamin Artz and his colleagues conducted a study on the technical competence of workplace supervisors, they found that “having a highly competent boss is easily the largest positive influence on a typical worker’s level of job satisfaction.” The WHR also reports that bosses “can play a substantial role in determining [workers’] subjective wellbeing.”
Traditionally, we have thought of good bosses as people with strong leadership abilities and the ability to problem-solve. While those qualities remain important, Artz’s data suggests that bringing in outsiders to contribute a fresh perspective to a company or organization can backfire. Artz’s focus ontechnical competencerevealed that having a boss with deep knowledge and expertise of their organization’s field greatly increased workplace happiness—and increased productivity by 12%.
3. Having autonomy
Good bosses will know that one way to ensure that their employees are happy and productive is to allow them autonomy at work. The WHR cites “having control over how the workday is organized” and “the pace at which the employee works” as core features of workplace autonomy. Many studies including the WHR have shown that autonomy is one of the main drivers of workplace happiness.
Employees with greater autonomy report higher levels of job satisfaction and are less likely to quit their jobs. Autonomy has even been shown to have significant health benefits. Its appeal is perhaps easiest to understand when it is presented as the flipside of micromanagement.One study reports that micromanagement can lead to “low employee morale, high staff turnover, [and] reduction of productivity.” The appeal of working at home largely lies in the ability to have greater autonomy, particularly for people with children. But even at the office, autonomy remains a critical component of workplace happiness.
Autonomy allows workers to manage their own time—and to add variety to their workdays. The WHR found that workers whose jobs involved a variety of tasks and required them to learn new things are more satisfied and happier on a day-to-day basis. But when marketing professors Cassie Molinger and Jordan Etkin conducted a study on variety and work, they found that thetypeof variety was an important determining factor in employee happiness.
Maintaining variety at work, Molinger and Etkin agreed, was important for maintaining happiness at work. But switching rapidly between tasks over short periods of time—i.e., multitasking—actually decreased worker happiness, and led to stress. Conversely, doing a variety of tasks over a longer period of time—a week or a month, or even just a couple of tasks over the course of a day instead of several in the span of an hour—led to increased levels of satisfaction.
Molinger and Etkin believe that the difference between these two approaches to work lies in the feeling of productivity. Frantic multitasking doesn’t allow people to feel like they’ve accomplished very much—because they haven’t. Staying focused on one thing allows workers to be more productive, and therefore more satisfied. But staying focused on the same thing for too long can lead to boredom. A healthy balance of focus and variety gives employees the best of both worlds.
5. Maintaining a healthy work/life balance
But perhaps the most important factor contributing to workplace happiness is the ability tostopworking. According to the WHR, work-life balance is possibly the strongest factor contributing to employee happiness. In spite of this, overwork is endemic to many professions these days. When Erin Reid, a professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, conducted a study of a top consulting firm, she found that many employees were reporting 80-hour work weeks. But she also found that there was little difference in productivity between men who actually did work 80 hours a week and those who only claimed to in order to curry favor with their boss.
Realistically, almost no one has the capacity to be productive for 80 hours a week, and trying only makes workers miserable. The American Psychological Association found that overwork has a negative effect not only on workers’ emotional but also on their physical health, a claim backed up by numerous other studies.
These are only some of the factors that affect workplace happiness, but they are important core components. Employees value decent wages and competent leadership; they desire some degree of flexibility and variety in their day-to-day work lives. Most importantly, they should be able—and allowed to—switch off their emails and relax when the workday is done. Even if you love your job, it’s important to having a life outside of it.