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Happy workers

Updated Friday 31st March 2006

The signs are that British workers are less happy than they used to be but not because they are under greater time pressures. Other factors come into the picture.

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The pace of life seems to be quickening, people complain of working longer hours, and some surveys have shown a decline in work satisfaction in recent years, largely as a result of the perceived time pressure. However comparisons with time distribution half a century back suggests that the major change is that time that used to be devoted to chores is now spent watching TV, rather than necessarily working longer hours!

The question is does devotion to work and money make us happy? It seems not. Above a certain minimum income, currently around £10,000 per annum, wealth has remarkably little effect on happiness ratings. GDP has more than doubled since the mid 1970s, but the number of people rating themselves as very happy has remained pretty constant since the 1950s.

Of course there are variations across countries. The proportion of those satisfied with their life rises in countries like Scandinavia where inequality in income is least and personal autonomy is considerable. It is lower in the former communist countries where freedom may be more limited and there are considerable differences between the rich and poor.

"Relationships are the critical factor"

If hard work and wealth does not necessarily increase our well-being, what does? Research shows that relationships are the critical factor. On average married people rate themselves as happier than those that are single, as do people with many friends compared with the more isolated. The socially embedded live longer and recover quicker from illness than social isolates. So if you want to be happy keep up the social network!

We need to bear in mind that people have different capacities for happiness. Extroverts for example, consistently rate themselves as happier than introverts. Psychologists estimate that innate tendencies can account for as much 50% of the variance in happiness ratings between individuals. They also say that our level of happiness normally remains pretty similar throughout life. Even after good fortune such as winning the lottery or a misfortune such as a bad accident people generally revert back to their normal level of happiness surprisingly quickly, often within a year.

Nevertheless there are a number of things we can do to draw out well-being. We have already discussed the importance of developing and maintaining satisfying relationships. Another factor is the extent to which people are actively engaged with life. Those who do things they like and/or find meaningful tend to be more satisfied than those who rarely do things they value.

Some studies suggest that it is more satisfying to be actively absorbed in areas in which we are intrinsically motivated and where we get feedback on our progress, such as gardening, dancing, playing golf, surfing, looking after children and cooking than with activities that are more passive, such as watching TV. However watching TV for 50 hours a week is surprisingly common in the UK and the US, though the number of hours watched is falling among the young who spend more time on the internet.

To enhance well-being, watch less TV and get actively involved in something you enjoy and value. Note that almost any work offers the opportunity to do something well and engage helpfully with others.

"There are plenty of happy secretaries and unhappy CEOs"

It is the attitude that a person brings to their work and life rather than the type of work they do and, normally, the situation they find themselves in, which governs their satisfaction levels. Outward achievement is not necessarily the answer; there are plenty of happy secretaries and unhappy CEOs. It can help to remember to count your blessings and avoiding spending too much time ruminating on the empty half of the glass.

The 24 hour culture has benefits. Quite a few studies show people who work part of the time at home rather than in the office are more productive. They also have the satisfaction of saved commuting time to devote to family, partners and friends, the relationships that are so important to well-being. If you are disciplined, asynchronous communication also affords the possibility of answering emails and voicemail at a time of your choosing.

Well-being is enhanced where workers have some flexibility over when and how they work and where they maintain a work-life balance that provides time for themselves and their family as well as work. People vary widely as to what that balance is. One study found half the leaders worked weekends and half not, yet both groups were equally happy with their work-life balance.

Further reading

  • 'The Positive Organisation' by Jane Henry in the The Psychologist, 2003
  • 'The Healthy Organization' by Jane Henry in Research Companion to Organizational Health Psychology by C Cooper & A Antoniou, published by Edward Elgar Publishing
  • 'Strategies For Developing Well-being' by Jane Henry in A Life worth Livingby M Csikszenmihalyi, published by Oxford University Press
  • Creative Management by Jane Henry, published by Sage
  • Creative and Perception in Management by Jane Henry, published by Sage
  • 24 hour working – discover what’s driving our long hours culture, and its impact on our health
  • The price of parenthood – having children brings many changes
 

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