Why Happiness at Work is Good for the Bottom Line

Written by Andy Cope Monday 03 July 2017
Your intuition tells you it is true, and now here’s the research to tell you why it is true (and how to make the most of it)
Businessman with hiding his face behind happy face mask

Stress is good for you. The human being is built to withstand short bursts of stress. In fact, these pressure points of life cause us to raise our game, which is why your team rallies to a deadline and pulls together in a crisis.

The problem is that, in the modern workplace, there is no recovery time.

We now live in a world of constant connection and information overload, bombarded with a gush of information that would have been staggering to comprehend even 10 years ago. This makes me sound crusty but when I first entered the workplace the inputs came from paper letters delivered to the office first thing. These were distributed to your pigeon hole for mid-morning and perhaps again in the afternoon if you were super-popular. You’d be taught to schedule you phone calls in a batch. Dealing with these tasks would take maybe an hour a day and you were then clear to do the stuff of ‘real work’.

Now this information is the real work. The background noise of 10 years ago has been replaced by the deafening cacophony of screaming emails and texts. Look around your workplace and you’ll see colleagues buzzed up on caffeine and sugar, masking their exhaustion as they count down to the weekend or their next holiday.

The conundrum is that happiness and energy are in short supply, yet they’re vital for business success.

Academic research merely confirms what you intuitively know, namely that happy employees are good for business. Cherry-picking a few studies, McNair suggests that energy and vitality inoculate you against mental ill-health. Den Hartog & Belschak report links between happiness and personal initiative and while plenty of others report that happy employees are more entrepreneurial, creative, motivated, productive, energetic, stress-resilient…

If you throw in the fact that happy employees also create an emotional uplift in those around them (thus raising the productivity of their co-workers), then the argument gets ramped up to the next level.

And, of course, the secret ingredient in the happiness cake, is that the biggest factor in workplace happiness is the leader. That means that almost single-handedly YOU have to power to create or destroy happiness (no pressure!).

The evidence in favour of happy employees is an open and shut case, your honour. The question therefore becomes, how can we create happy workplaces?

It’s taken me 100,000 words and 12 years of research to get to the bottom of that gem - too big a beast to wrestle with in an 1,000-word article. So, here’s the headline news…

Pretty much forever, psychology focused on what was wrong with people, the aim being to identify phobias, disorders and anxieties, with a view to fixing people. That’s important and useful, but I always felt there was something missing?

A few years ago I realised what it was - psychologists had never studied well people, so I set out to do just that. Indeed, I have just handed in a Loughborough PhD thesis that reports on those who are happy, energetic, positive and passionate, ie, the ones in your workplace who really shine.

You can probably count them on the fingers of one hand, the people in your life who when they walk into the room, you feel brilliant. They probably haven’t even spoken, they’re just there. Or the cheery souls who know the exact level of bright enthusiasm that will raise the level of their work colleagues.

A word of warning at the outset, however. Too much happiness (bounding into the office on Monday with a hearty whoop of, “WooHoo, don’t those weekends drag…”) will just annoy people.

I call the genuine uplifting minority, the 2%ers, a term that doesn’t appear in the PhD but is something I use as shorthand for the folk who carry a feel-good factor with them. I describe being a 2%er as a portable benefit, as in Bob the Builder’s attitude - it tends to reside in the person rather than the job.

So, playing the yes/no game here are a few things that will quieten the doubting in your head:

Yes, it’s difficult to get it exactly right and nobody nails it every time. It’s OK to be imperfect.

No, it’s not about fixing an inane grin on your face and pretending you’re happy when you’re not. It’s OK to have some down time.

Yes, there’s effort involved in being stand-out uplifting (because you are lifting yourself and those around you)

And, yes, the effort is totally worthwhile...

…because, yes, it’s probably the most important skill you will ever learn.

All those bite-sized points are important but none more so than the last one. Being the kind of person who inspires those around them is absolutely a learned behaviour. Sure, there is a bit of genetic jiggery-pokery that improve your odds, and your circumstances can help, but a massive chunk of your happiness and effervescence is directly under your control.

So while the rest of the psychological community was studying depression and misery I set to work investigating the opposites; the happiness outliers who nearly fell off the end of my happiness graph.

They are rare but when you find them you discover they are positive energisers who create and support the vitality of others. They have an uplifting and boosting effect that leaves others feeling lively and motivated.

It’s a technical (but important) point, that happiness at work is a joint effort between the business and the individual. Without this insight, you will never get it right because happiness (along with all other emotions) is an internal construct. That basically means happiness isn’t real, it’s generated from within. This explains why some people fail to shine, even in the most jaw-dropping business environments.

Here are my leadership quick-wins, all of which I describe as ‘simple’ but not ‘easy’:

Encourage staff to go way beyond SMART objectives. I encourage HUGGs (huge unbelievably great goals), exciting things that are on the edges of achievability. Goals that are worth getting out of bed for.

Strengths: uncovering people’s strengths and then finding ways for them to use their strengths every day. Simple? Yup. Are more organisations doing it? Nope.

Positive communication ratio of 6:1. If I was a fly on the wall in your office and could hear six positives for every whinge, I’d be fairly sure that your team is rocking and rolling. If it dips below 2:1, the energy will be leaking. If your communication dips the other way (it, there are more negatives than positives, I’d be worried).

Recruit and promote 2%ers. Bring positive people in, and put them in key roles where they encounter a lot of staff and customers. Their happiness creates a ripple effect.

Purpose is key. If people have a clear and compelling reason to come to work, they will arrive with a spring in their step. Find (or remind them of) their ‘why?’.

Care. And I mean genuinely care. Chances are that if your people can respond affirmatively to ‘someone at work seems to care about me as a person’, they will turn up with a positive attitude.

Andy Cope

Andy Cope

Andy Cope is a happiness expert and co-author of The Little Book of Emotional Intelligence: How to Flourish in a Crazy World. For more information see