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What makes people happy at work?

Updated Thursday, 4 May 2017
Experts identify what makes workers happy - and why it's important.

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A ball pit in an office

According to Andrew Oswald, statistically the happiest kind of worker in Britain is: "a woman, in her 50s, not working in London, living close to her job so that she doesn’t have a long commute. Not especially highly educated, possibly part-time or self-employed, probably working in a small work place with just ten or twenty employees."

Worker happiness is not an add-on

For worker happiness to come about, it needs to be integrated into an organisation's working practices and into what economists call the work contract between capital and labour.

Angela Ishmael, of The Work Foundation:
"One of the things we've been trying to do with organisations is to get them to understand the relationship between treating their staff really well and creating an environment where employees feel valued and how that links to not just the public image of the organisation but the organisation's performance. We think it's really important that organisations understand that treating their staff well doesn't just mean giving them lots and lots of money, it means an environment where they can actually give of their best. It means the reduction and elimination of discrimination generally, of systems and procedures that discriminate. It means allowing a level of empowerment, in terms of allowing people accountability and responsibility to make the organisation work. And it means finding innovative ways of working that allow people to give of their best whilst actually meeting other kinds of responsibilities that they have other than work."

Will Hutton, Chairman of The Work Foundation:
"Arguably the work contract between capital and labour has been at the centre of economics since it developed as a social science 150 years ago. Now we're watching economists broaden the nature of what that contract is, recognising how people feel about their work, how they relate to it as a dimension that's pretty important in any calculation about productivity. I think that economists are actually wearing a pretty utilitarian hat when they begin to explore the nature of the work contract not just as a kind of money exchange between a worker and his or her hirer, but recognising all the other dimensions that make that worker work well."

A benefit for all society

The UK has some of the longest working hours in Europe, so it's in everyone's interest that workers are productive throughout the working week.

A happy and engaged workforce benefits not just employers and employees – it also benefits society at large:

Will Hutton:
"I think two things flow from an engaged workforce, a workforce which feels it’s working well. One – you get a high productivity economy and there’s a lot of benefits from that. You just are wealthier, you can afford to do more interesting things. And whether it’s public services or one's individual choices as a human being, all are enlarged by being wealthier rather than poorer. Secondly I think that the engagement that comes at work spills over into civil life; into political life. You get people who are more engaged in their local community, in their neighbourhood, in the political process, more willing to give to charity, more willing to participate in associations in their neighbourhood and so you get into a virtuous circle." 

The work-life balance

The balance between work and other aspects of people's lives is increasingly important.

Will Hutton:
"We're working longer hours, we're working irregularly, we're working in the evening, we're working at weekends. And the balance that we strike between those obligations to the workplace and to other dimensions of our life have become centre stage." 

While some people manage to get a good work/life balance, most find it much harder to achieve.

Dr Susan Himmelweit, an economist from The Open University, discusses this issue:
"One group who often can get a good work/life balance is people who work for large organisations whose jobs are not particularly skilled and where the organisation is well-meaning. Some of the big retailers for example, where often the shifts are flexible. The second main group is people who have skills their employers really need, and they often have to go through an individual process of negotiation but can in the end get quite good terms.

It's less easy to categorise people who do have difficulties in negotiating measures that would help their work/life balance. Very often it's the attitudes of their immediate managers that's most important more than the overall employer's policy. In some cases managers have really put themselves out in order to help a particular employee to work against company policy . In other places, where an employer has a very good work/life balance policy allowing people to ask for part time work, for example, people will not ask for it if their own manager is unsympathetic."

What's more, the work/life balance point changes as individuals progress through their working lives.

Angela Ishmael:
"In UK business culture, people have been brought up to think of work as separate from their lives, and not understand the relationship between the two. One of the things that we're trying to get people to see is that they are very much part and parcel of the same thing. Organisations, in terms of building in flexibility, need to understand that as people go through their natural life cycle, their need and their relationship with work changes. For example, whilst organisations have been very good at providing child care and early years facilities for women, what they haven't been so good at recognising is that men are parents too. And people have other life cycle changes which leads to changes in their relationship with work, for example they may have caring responsibilities for elderly parents. "

Is worker happiness an achievable aim?

Will Hutton, at least, is optimistic about the future:
"I think we've now reached the point where there's sufficient critical mass of opinion amongst employers and amongst the workforce that the time has come to take these ideas on board that actually the flexibilities about how you organise your working life need to be a worker right, so that you can have much more autonomy over your working time. I think we're going to move from the right to ask for these privileges to the right to have them. I think without doubt that we're going to have them in the next ten or fifteen years."

Originally published in 2002


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