Does work make us happy?

Today is the International Day of Happiness.  It was declared by the United Nations at the instigation of Bhutan, the small Himalayan kingdom where the stated aim of government is maximising Gross National Happiness.  But it reminds us that employee well-being, then described as staff welfare, is where CIPD and the HR profession began.

The pioneers of the profession (nearly all women) started their work in factories towards the end of the 19th century and their original focus was on the welfare of employees, especially the young.  They were aided in this by a small number of visionary employers, such as the Rowntree family, who saw the moral and the business imperative for treating their employees well (for the time) and extending their attention outside working hours and beyond the factory gates.  They wished to improve the moral as well as the physical health of their employees.  This was still the prevailing ethos when the CIPD was founded in 1913 and it wasn’t until the post-War period that “personnel management” became so strongly connected with the management of the enterprise.

CIPD’s purpose is to champion better work and working lives.  The words may have a modern feel but the values and assumptions underpinning them can be traced to our foundations.  One of the implicit assumptions is that better work and working lives contributes to a better and more prosperous society, from which it’s difficult to avoid the inference that work is both necessary and important to our individual well-being.  But does it make us happy?

For most of the last two thousand years, at least in Europe, work was something necessary for survival and commonly something to be endured rather than enjoyed.  For many, meaning was provided by a sense of doing God’s work, even if the rewards were in paradise rather than on earth.  Max Weber's classic account of the Protestant work ethic shows how hard work became both a virtue in its own right and a means of creating the wealth that could be used for further good works.  For all but the rich, it is only within the last hundred years or so that not doing paid work has become a possibility, thanks to all that earlier hard work raising living standards enough to make a Welfare State feasible.  And arguments that work is a moral duty have lost force with the decline in religiosity.

Nevertheless, attachment to work is still widespread and, it seems, goes beyond the material benefits it brings.  According to the 2012 Skills and Employment Survey, 71% of employees aged 20-65 said they would continue to work even if they did not need the money (up from 65% in 1986).  And work is still a social obligation; only those out of work who are looking for a job and those regarded as having a valid reason for not working (such as disability or caring for dependents) are eligible to claim welfare benefits.

If attachment remains strong, people in work should be happier than people without work.  Is that the case?  The Office for National Statistics publish data each year on various aspects of well-being, including data on individual well-being.  The chart below shows the four questions the ONS uses, together with the latest figures covering 2014/15.

People are given four questions and, in each case, asked to provide an answer on a scale from zero to ten where zero is “not at all” and ten is “completely applies”.  For three of the questions, ten is “good” but, for anxiety, ten is “bad”.  In all these questions, we see a lot of clustering.  Very few people give numbers in the bottom half of the distribution and seven or eight are chosen by nearly half of the sample for the first three questions (anxiety is different because nearly a third of respondents said they experienced no anxiety at all).

The next chart breaks down the mean scores for each question by economic activity and, for those who are inactive, the reason given for inactivity.  The mean scores for those employed are much higher than for the unemployed.  Among the economically inactive, there is a clear gap between those who are studying, looking after family and home or retired and those who are inactive due to sickness, disability or discouragement (the belief no jobs are available).

This suggests that not having a job when you want one (being unemployed) results in substantially lower well-being.  This is to be expected as studies have shown that unemployment, especially long-term unemployment, is associated with an increased risk of various traumatic events such as relationship breakdown and deterioration in physical and mental ill-health.  Those inactive due to discouragement are in a similar position and many of those inactive due to sickness or disability may want to work but can’t.

However, those inactive for other reasons, have similar satisfaction scores to the employed.  This suggests the amount of choice people have over their situation could be the key factor.  Being out of work, especially for a sustained period, can bring financial pressures.  There may also be a sense of stigma, given the strong connection between work and personal identity.  Furthermore, studying and looking after family or home are work, but they’re not paid.

For those in paid employment, how important is the satisfaction they get from their job to their overall well-being?  The chart below shows the probability of being “somewhat satisfied” or better with life overall (about 75% of us are), according to how satisfied (or not) people are with their job, their health and their financial situation.

In all three cases, there is a positive association between satisfaction with job, health or finances and overall life satisfaction.  However, the strength of association is less for job satisfaction that it is for health and finances.  This can be seen in the charts by the left tails being lower (and the right tails being higher) for health and finance.  In other words, health and finances matter more to people than how they feel about their jobs.  This is understandable but might underplay the significance of work, which is the main source of income for most people, as well as having the potential to damage (or improve) health.

The chart below shows that the link between job satisfaction and personal well-being holds up when using the ONS questions.  The small proportion of employees who are completely dissatisfied with their job are giving answers to the “positive” questions averaging four or less, whereas those completely satisfied have average scores between eight and nine.

What does this mean for championing better work and working lives?  First, that success against our purpose will make a difference, especially if “better working lives” includes being able to find a job when you want one.  Second, it bolsters the moral case for giving priority to employee well-being.  It is also a reminder that health and safety legislation places a general duty of care on employers, which extends to the health, safety and welfare of their workers.  Third, job satisfaction depends, to a large extent, on what happens in the workplace.  It can be managed even if it can’t be controlled.

Research commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills summarises the key job and workplace-related factors affecting job satisfaction.  These include clarity of job role, the demands placed on the employee (not too much, not too little), a sense of control over how the work is done, decent pay, job security and a sense of being treated fairly.  Critical supporting factors are supportive and social co-workers, effective HR practices that engender commitment and avoid excessive rules and procedures, and a workplace environment that enables people to do their best.  Our employee surveys point to the content of the job and relationships with co-workers and line management as important factors explaining why employees become dissatisfied. There’s nothing here that can’t be addressed with what’s already in the management toolbox (although care is needed in picking the right tool and using it correctly).

These data all relate to the UK.  An analysis of US survey data by the Conference Board found that the most important factors influencing job satisfaction were interesting work, good communications, recognition and a manageable workload and work-life balance.  More broadly, there is a lot of commonality across countries but national cultures do have an impact on what makes a job satisfying.  Employment practices may need to be fine-tuned according to where employers operate.

The BIS-commissioned research also found persistent and positive statistical relationships between the mean job satisfaction score at a workplace and measures of workplace performance.  Although the researchers are careful to stress they cannot “prove” a causal link, these findings are consistent with many other studies that have found links between employee well-being and HR-related variables like absence rates and employee turnover; however, it goes further than many in suggesting that satisfied employees make a direct contribution to productivity.  Employers have a legal and moral duty to consider the well-being of their employees.  As the more forward-thinking employers have always realised, it also delivers better results.

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  • In the last ten years, since I started Laughology, a consulting and development company that promotes happiness, fun and positive working and learning environments, I have seen small changes.  However my general feeling and anecdotal understanding from working with thousands of companies over the years is that there's a lot more to understand and do to really get this right.  Organisations seem to see happiness at work and well- being as a 'one day' course managers, leaders and teams can go on.  Whilst this is a great starting point for awareness - happiness needs to be part of a strategy that is discussed and implemented in a serious way.  Yes let's get serious about happiness and dare I say making work places fun and better places to be generally. I'm not talking about ra ra rallies and balloon-athons but understanding the the important structures to help people become happy and developing people in these skills.  As part of my MA and for the last 5 years at Laughology we have been looking into what these things are. 5 themes seem to come out each time: Confidence - having confidence and the organisation having confidence in you. So you can make decisions and feel in control, but also have confidence in ones self.  Purposeful personal development - creating purpose in your own life while developing yourself, so you feel competent and confident - doing things that are meaningful to you.  Positive relationships - developing real trusting relationships, knowing you have people around you who can make you laugh, listen to you.  Support - to and from others.  Knowing the support line, having a true voice, being heard and listening and supporting others and finally Coping skills.  It's important we recognise life doesn't have to be happy and fun all the time and chasing happiness will make you unhappy. Sometimes we need to go through challenges to grow and come out the other side better and stronger. For that we need resilience, optimism and skills to help us get through those times.  Now by no means is this list complete or have we found the answers to happiness and well being at Laughology, however it's a start and we have found in many organisations by increasing these skill sets, addressing these themes strategically - engagement levels sore and so does productivity.