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Happiness and Fulfillment at Work: An illusion or a human right?

“The most exciting breakthroughs of the twenty-first century will not occur because of technology, but because of an expanding concept of what it means to be human.” John Naisbitt

Unfortunately, the reality looks different. According to the Deloitte shift index 80% of people are dissatisfied with their jobs. One of the main reasons for this dissatisfaction is rooted in management and leadership that does not create an environment for personal happiness and fulfillment. Employees join companies, but they leave their boss (see original article).

The three main driving forces of a fulfilled life are firstly, the quality of our relationships, secondly, our mental and physical health and thirdly, the execution of meaningful, passionate, strength- and growth-oriented tasks. The latter influencing factor is for most people mainly related to their jobs. Thus our work should be a calling and not a burden, a place where we feel good.

Happiness is a more temporary state whereas fulfillment is deeper. Getting a promotion or achieving a goal can only make people happy at the moment. Human organisations can create environments for happiness and also nurture all three influencing factors by supporting human interactions and trustworthy relationships at work, and through health-oriented leadership styles and a visionary, goal- and strengths-oriented working environment. The power of organisations to create a more fulfilled and humane world is immense. This applies even if the work environment has to deal with VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) and unpredictable, rapid-changing situations.

What can organisations do to contribute to this possible future? Studying happiness at work and fulfillment at life from different disciplines led to a concept that focuses on the following 6 dimensions which should be targeted in order to facilitate an environment for employees to be happy and fulfilled at work.

Illustration by Civil Society Academy

Filling the 6 dimensions with concrete actions will not only lead to happier and more fulfilled staff but will also raise the productivity of organisations and – if you are a leader – it will also contribute to your own fulfillment and happiness at work.

There is no blueprint for successful and happy, fulfilled staff. Thus the first and most important step and maybe change is to truly LISTEN to them. And this means empathetic listening and asking the right questions, like “what support and what kind of environment do you need to love going to work every morning and to perform well?”

Further insights into the 6 dimensions can be used to inspire a proper dialogue and to identify ways for improvement.

1. Trustful, empathetic and supportive leaders

Leaders need to be trustful, empathetic and supportive. Trustful leaders “walk the talk”. Trust depends above all on an alignment between words and actions. Trust is also “a biological reaction to the belief that someone has our well-being at heart” (Sinek 2017, p. 83) and treats us fairly.

Empathetic leaders are good listeners and observers. They understand what the needs, interests and strengths of their staff are. They no longer tell others how to do their job. They listen and have a strong will to understand the individual situation of each colleague. The most important asset for successful leaders is empathy, not technology or other assets (Sinek 2017). They sit down with their staff and listen to what they have to say. They create an environment and atmosphere in which their staff feel they can express themselves honestly.

And finally, they do everything in their power to remove barriers. They help their staff thrive. Authority is no longer linked to rank, but rather to the ability to lead by example. “Gallup asked ten million employees around the world if they could agree or disagree with the following statement: “My superior, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person,” those who agreed were found to be more productive, contributed more to profits, and were significantly more likely to stay with their company long-term.” (Achor 2011, p. 189) They feel appreciated.

2. Fit between the individual and organisational vision & values

People work smarter and are more satisfied when they invest their time and energy in an organisation and the respective tasks, if they believe in the vision and mission of this organisation and if they share similar values. The more people can align their tasks with their personal vision and values, the more likely they see their work as a calling and not as a burden to earn money.

Leaders when recruiting should, therefore, be interested in understanding the values of their potential staff members as values are linked to attitudes and actions and behaviors. Taking into consideration the personal values does not only mean to hire people based on their skills but also to hire those who understand the organisational culture. Skills can be trained.

Having a vision, a purpose and values gives people the energy, passion and motivation to get out of bed in the morning. It also fosters communities of like-minded employees, clients and partners. They come together with shared ideals.

3. Making culture first: the way we behave and interact is key

This dimension focuses on the values of interaction and collaboration. These are the basics of an organisation's culture and plays a crucial role in deciding if the vision and planned strategies will be fulfilled. As Peter Drucker once said, "culture eats strategy for breakfast".

In addition to this, the way how, with whom and how often we interact doesn’t depend mainly on tasks and hierarchy, but on personal preferences.

Illustration by Civil Society Academy

What can organisations do to make culture come first?

Define and live the values of the organisations

“I remember many meetings when we just couldn’t decide what to do, and then someone would ask, “What do the values say?”. (…) such meetings ended within minutes, everyone is happy with the decision that now seemed obvious.” (Logan, King, Fischer-Wright 2018. p. 153)

Unfortunately it’s a fact, that organisational values are often written on paper but never filled with life. To avoid this paper work, it is recommended to plan “value sessions” on a regular basis, at least once a year is recommended. Talk about the values in annual staff appraisals.

Gratitude and success lists

It is scientifically proven that thinking of 3 to 5 things your are grateful for leads to a higher level of happiness in your life. The same applies to companies who asked in team meetings or special events what they are grateful for! “Countless (…) studies have shown that consistently grateful people are more energetic, emotionally intelligent, forgiving, and less likely to be depressed, anxious, or lonely.” (Achor 2011, p. 98)

Gratitude also fosters feelings of integration and cooperation in companies. The more gratitude is expressed towards colleagues the bigger the social cohesion. (Achor 2011, p. 195)

Treat people like family and not as mere employees

“Every single employee is someone’s son or someone’s daughter.” (Sinek 2017, p. 20) A strong culture feels like a family. People are proud to talk about their organisation. They feel appreciated and acknowledged: “According to a Gallup poll conducted in 2013 called “State of the American Workplace”, when our bosses completely ignore us, 40 percent of us actively disengage from our work. If our bosses criticize us on a regular basis, 22 percent of us actively disengage. Meaning, even if we’re getting criticized, we are actually more engaged simply because we feel that at least someone is acknowledging that we exist.” (Sinek 2017, p. 34)

Reserve time for social interaction

Parties, the time we spend around the coffee machine, doing sports together, roaming the halls of the office and engaging with colleagues beyond meetings etc. are important to build a warm, humane culture. The more familiar we are with each other, the stronger our bonds.

“It’s not how smart the people in the organisation are; it’s how well they work together that is the true indicator of future success or the ability to manage through struggle.” (Sinek 2017, p. 97)

4. Tasks that are in line with our basic psychological needs

Our happiness at work also depends as well on the tasks we conduct. These have to satisfy our basic psychological needs which are the need for autonomy, the need for self-efficacy or competence, the need for power and the need for belongingness (see Self-Determination Theory by Deci and Ryan, and Theory of Needs by McClelland).

Illustration by Civil Society Academy

The seven following characteristics should be taken into consideration when designing tasks and activities (see job characteristic model of Oldham & Hackman).

Meaningful, valuable job, task

According to the Japanese concept of IKIGAI, people need to see and live the sense and purpose of their doing. IKIGAI is that place where your passion, your mission, your calling and your career intersect.

Complete tasks

Completing tasks from start to finish which make sense and give them the chance to experience self-efficacy and impact. “Frontline employees” should make the majority of the decisions, if the aim is to be agile in responding to clients.

Strengths, skills, and interests matched

People want to be challenged to use a variety of their capabilities. In many organisations people work on things they are supposed to do, but not necessarily disposed to do. Employees prefer working on tasks they like and which fit their talents and strengths. Doing what you are good at increases motivation and engagement.

Autonomy and responsibility

People with a high need for autonomy perform best when given a high degree of autonomy. Successful organisations let employees decide where, when and with whom to work. With freedom of decision-making comes responsibility and accountability.

“A 2002 study of nearly 3,000 wage and salaried employees for the National Study of the Changing Workforce found that greater feelings of control at work predicted greater satisfaction in nearly every aspect of life: family, job, relationships, and so on.” (Achor, 2011, p. 130)

Possibilities of working together with other people

Belongingness is another basic psychological need and the most dominant in many cultures of the word. It’s obvious that working alone in a closed office sitting far away from colleagues will lead to many unhappy employees. “When over a thousand highly successful professional men and women were interviewed as they approached retirement and asked what had motivated them the most, throughout their careers, overwhelmingly they placed work friendships above both financial gain and individual status.” (Achor 2011, p. 184)

In addition to this, it is our human ability to cooperate that helps us to move on, to get things done, to implement strategies and to endeavor change. This doesn’t mean that teamwork at all times is the solution. But a good mix of both is reasonable and productive.

Learning and development possibilities

Work happiness researcher Dank Pink highlights the necessity of “mastery”. People want to move on and become better. This might encompass job-rotation, job enlargement or job enrichment for example.

5. Healthy environment

A healthy environment can include many fields of action, e.g.:

  • Healthy drinks and food at work (e.g. less or no sugar in products you get in the office or canteen which has clearly proven negative effects on the productivity of organisations and health of every single employee)

  • Enough sleep and being offline on the weekends and late in the evenings (rest time is necessary to recharge the batteries)

  • Fair salary and job security

  • Flexible working arrangements (e.g. working time regulation, work from home)

  • Working environment (e.g. quality and style of building, infrastructure, medical treatment, daycare, fitness)

There is a new “trend” coming up called “Health-oriented leadership”. The main challenge is that the seniors have to be a role model for a healthy lifestyle for their employees.

6. Being a learning and adaptive organisation

People have the innate desire to grow and to move on. Thus besides organising the tasks according to the job characteristics mentioned above, the whole organisation should be designed as a learning organisation. Organisations should be open-minded to new technologies and new agile methods and tools that might help them to become more efficient and also prepare them for technological changes. Classical organisations act slowly, owing to their reliance on human decision-making and hierarchy. Organisations will need to become more effective at dynamic collaboration to get the most out of their teams and partnerships. When organisations seriously and passionately fill the 6 dimensions with life, employees will feel better and be more productive. It will no longer be an illusion.

To put these findings in a simple biological perspective would mean to create an environment that fosters the releasing of oxytocin and dopamine. The latter is released when we achieve something, when we grow, when people hit their goals and come closer to their vision (dimension 2, 4, 6, related to the fulfillment factor “meaningful, passionate, strength- and growth-oriented tasks”). That feels good. But these states of happiness are of short duration. Oxytocin, on the other hand, ensures longer lasting satisfaction through love, friendship and trustful relationships at work (dimension 1 and 3, related to fulfillment factor “quality of relationships”). Human beings are motivated to thrive when we repeat or learn new activities and behaviors that make us feel good. The fifth dimension "healthy environment" is the prerequisite for working happily, fulfilled and productively in the medium and long term.

In the upcoming months you will find on our website concrete tools and action steps to become better at the 6 dimensions in your organisations.

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Achor, Shawn (2011): The Happiness Advantage. The Seven Principles that Fuel Success and Performance at Work.

Brigette, Hyacinth (April 16, 2018): Employees Don't Quit Their Job; They Quit Their Boss!. Retrieved 11/06/2019.

Dan, Pink (May 12, 2011): Three Laws of Mastery. In: Innovative Ideas in Performance and Pedagogy. Retrieved 11/06/2019.

James, Young (March 14, 2018): Heroes of Employee Engagement: No. 8 Greg R. Oldham & J Richard Hackman. Retrieved 11/06/2019.

Liz, Mineo (April 11, 2017): Good genes are nice, but joy is better. In: Harvard Business Review, Health and Medicine. Retrieved 11/06/2019.

Logan, King, Fischer-Wright (2008): Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization.

Mack, Kahre, Krämer, Burgatz (2015): Managing in a VUCA world.

McClelland (2009): Human Motivation.

McClelland (Unknown): Theory of Needs.

Richard M., Ryan and Edward L., Deci (2000): Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being. In: American Psychologist. January 2000.

Richard M., Ryan (2014): The Oxford Handbook of Human Motivation.

Sinek, Simon (2017): Leaders eat last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t.

About the Author

Prof. Dr. Petra Speier-Werner’s vision is a world in which every human being has the possibility to love unconditionally, to eat healthy and to grow and flow for a more peaceful, joyful and loving world where we are living in unity and connected to our greatness and true potential.

Petra offers individuals, groups and organisations evidence-based interdisciplinary knowledge, full attention, inspiration and practical tools to facilitate change and to become more fulfilled. She is a staff member of Civil Society Academy and facilitates training on leadership, collaboration and organisational development.

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