Happiness at Work - No Size Fits All

“Happiness at work” does not mean the same to everyone. In today’s post, Pilar reflects on the dangers of holding a narrow version of “happiness” in our heads and she lays down a number of ways in which people differ when they think of “happiness”.


I’ve been struggling for many years with the idea of “happiness”. (If I were to try and think for how long, I’d say probably throughout most of my adult life). I read and hear many people talk about "being happy" when they are only referring to the more cosmetic side of happiness: being positive, being upbeat or having rowdy fun.

There is a need to be happy at work- though happiness comes in many forms. We spend so much of our life working that, those of us with all our basic needs already covered, should strive to find happiness at work. Anything less means throwing our lives away.

What's worse, I fear that much of the talk around “finally, the weekend” or “I bet you can’t wait to go on holiday” many times reflects more a culture that has come to equate work with “something I don’t enjoy but have to do so that I can enjoy everything else” than a true desire not to work.

When Happiness at Work Became Mainstream

So when in 2012 the February HBR issue was dedicated to Happiness at Work, I thought, “Great, we are now going to be able to talk about being happy at work, about wanting to be ok at work, about the fact that we’re not expected to hate our work.”

So we did.

Now we’re expected to be “happy at work”, but "happy" in the narrowest of terms. Positive, upbeat and having rowdy fun.

Over the last few years, I was hoping to hear about a range of ways of helping people to be happy at work: through more input into decisions that affect them, through less bossy bosses, through more flexibility in work location and schedule, through more recognition at work and less punishment for taking risks in the name of improvement…

Instead, I’m coming across articles describing how most happiness at work programmes in organisations are narrow-minded versions of what a happy employee looks like.

One More Plaster on an Infected Wound

I set up Virtual not Distant, because, as more people started to work in virtual teams (though not always out of choice), I thought, “What a great opportunity we have to set up something different. What a great opportunity to ditch everything we don’t like about the collocated space and find new ways of working that make us happier.”

However, as companies introduce remote working without considering how they have to change the way in which they manage their employees and as some employees start to disengage because they feel unsupported when they work from home, we’re starting to get a few “let’s move back to the office, remote teams will never work” stories.

I fear the same will happen with our dialogue around happiness. These programmes that have been designed to help just one profile of a “happy employee” are starting to crash and we’re starting to see headlines like “Against Happiness: Companies that try to turn happiness into a management tool are overstepping the mark” and  “The cult of compulsory happiness is ruining our workplaces”. (This last one belongs to yesterday's article in The Guardian, which kicked me into action to write this post.)

An Opportunity About to be Missed

I fear that a big opportunity (helping people to be happy at work) is being missed due to the introduction of superficial, one-size fits all programmes and conversations. So, I hear you say, "What are you going to do about it?"

I don’t have the answer, but I hope I can offer something of value to this conversation:

Happiness means different things to different people.

Here's a short list that comes to mind about what happiness at work might mean to different people.

I might dread finding a job where I need to travel for one hour on the train to work every day; you might love that daily moment where you can be just with yourself (and your book or your favourite podcast...)

Wearing shorts and flip-flops to the office might be my idea of Heaven; having to conform to Casual Friday (do they still exist?) might stress you out because you like to dress up when you are at work.

Going out for lunch with your team mates might be the highlight of your month; lunch at my desk might be the only time I get to read the online newspaper I subscribed to a month ago.

Working from home might help me do my best work; you might need the noise and activity of an open-plan office to focus on your most difficult tasks.

Dealing with 10,000 emails a day (ok, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration) might be what’s stressing you out at the moment; I might like receiving and sending out emails as it’s the only way in which I connect with other people at work.

A ‘good day at work’ for you might be one where you get all your routine tasks done without interruption and without making any mistakes. A ‘good day at work’ for me might be one where I had a strategy meeting and decided to finally make some changes to the way in which we work.

I might finally achieve happiness when I get to CEO and run a company like I know it should be run; being promoted to manager might be the only way to increase your influence in your company to improve things, even if it means being in charge of a team, which you don't really enjoy...

Having pop music on in the office might be your idea of happiness at work; the idea of it might put me off coming into the office all together.

Playing table tennis to have a physical break every now and then might be all you need to have a good day; the noise of the ball bouncing on the table (and off it) might interrupt my work and make me curse our tech start-up culture.

You might be looking forwards to dancing with your colleagues in a crowded dance floor during the Christmas-do; I much prefer quality movement on a sprung floor in a dance class. (Yes, the idea of dancing in a restricted space doesn’t make me happy at all… )
So if you are in the privileged position of designing interventions or championing working practices to help people be happy at work, please remember, we’re all different and “happiness at work” can mean a whole range of different things.

(For more thoughts on happiness, check out “Who’s Responsible for Happiness at Work”,  episode 98 of the 21st Century Work Life podcast.)