Employment and HR specialists have long considered it a typical chicken/egg paradox. Are happier workers more productive, or does productivity make workers happier?
Research is starting to come out on the side of worker happiness leading to better productivity, not the other way around.
“Despite the fact that happiness has remained a hard concept to define, over 30 years of research has indicated that there is a positive relationship between measures of well-being and productivity,” says Dr. Supriya Syal a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto and Scientific Advisor at BEWorks, a behavioural economics consultancy in Toronto.
In a study released last year, Andrew Oswald and his team at the University of Warwick in the UK outlined a series of experiments to test the happiness = productivity/ productivity = happiness paradox.
In one of the experiments subjects were surveyed as to their current state of mind. They were then divided into groups. One group watched a comedic video clip while the other watched no clip or a placebo clip. In a variation of the experiment, instead of a clip, the group treated to increase their happiness was given food and drink. Following the happiness treatment, or “happiness shock,” the participants were again surveyed for their state of mind. After that mid-experiment survey, the participants were given a 10-minute mathematic task and paid 25 pence per correct answer to measure their productivity under pressure. In another variation of the experiment, the participants were paid 50 pence per correct answer to complete a short GMAT-style math test. Following the task, the participants were surveyed on their current state of mind. They were also asked about any major life events that were influencing their long term mood.
The team found that research participants, who were subjected to the short term “happiness shock” of a funny film clip or a gift of food, were more productive in the assigned tasks. Subjects who reported experiencing a tragic or sad life event over the past year performed less well on the assigned tasks.
“This study provides evidence of a link between human happiness and human productivity. To our knowledge, it is the first such evidence,” the report reads.
Oswald’s team tested subjects’ moods using highly-controlled methods in a laboratory setting. How can employers measure their employees’ happiness on the job in the workplace itself?
“Standard job satisfaction surveys are a good start on measurement. The new research literature suggests lots of subtler ways to measure wellbeing of the workforce,” Oswald said in an email interview. “The advantage of the laboratory is that it is possible to really prove causality. New evidence from actual workplaces is confirming our lab findings.”
In addition to asking employees to comment on their wellbeing through surveys, measuring vacation time to ensure employees take time off may also lead to a happier workplace, says a Forbes review of research conducted by Harris Interactive.
That research found “the more you work, the less you get done.” A summary of the current thinking on the issue is that when employees don’t take enough leisure time, they are more likely to become ill and suffer personal and family issues from spending too much time at work. In other words, employees who spend more time at work become less happy and less productive.
On the whole, research does seem to show that companies should be providing both “happiness shocks” for their employees, through special events or occasional treats, and long term happiness benefits, like longer paid vacations and protected leisure time to ensure productivity. However, there is also evidence employees should protect their own happiness when they find themselves in poor working conditions.
A recent study conducted by Bennett Tepper’s team at the University of Ohio found that when employees have a hostile boss, they should give back as good as they get.
“The study found that employees felt less like victims when they retaliated against their bad bosses,” the University said in a press release, “and as a result experienced less psychological distress, more job satisfaction and more commitment to their employer.”
When it comes to employee happiness, it appears that two wrongs may not make a right, but it might make for better productivity.
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