UN International Day of Happiness - what does it mean to be happy at work?

UN International Day of Happiness - what does it mean to be happy at work?

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Did you know there’s a dedicated word in the Scandinavian languages for the concept of being happy at work? In Danish, the word is: arbejdsglaede. Wonder what this says about the working culture of the Danes that they have such a word and we don’t?

Today is the United Nations International Day of Happiness, an event launched last year to promote the “pursuit of happiness as a fundamental human goal” and a balanced, sustainable approach to economic growth. The basic message is that happiness is a serious matter, and that our governments, institutions and businesses should be putting wellbeing at the top of the agenda.

So what does this mean for human resources? Without an arbejdsglaede in our vocabulary, we often talk about wellbeing or job satisfaction in the context of happiness at work. While the latter is taken seriously with employee surveys galore, it seems like a rather dour cousin of the concept of genuine on-the-job happiness, the kind of happiness where staff are thriving, fully in flow and loving what they do.

Wellbeing, on the other hand, appears to be seen as a bit of an optional extra, or a ‘nice-to-have’ - at least from my perspective working for a consultancy that is often brought in by HR departments to run their wellbeing events. While undoubtedly of genuine value in giving staff a boost and new perspectives on how to look after themselves, these dedicated weeks or days often seem to be set aside in the training calendar to tick the ‘happiness box’, instead of seeing happiness as a fundamental strategic goal and something to be woven into the fabric of the organisation.

The thing is, happiness is much more than icing on the cake or something to cultivate once you’ve done your ‘real work’. Positive psychology studies in recent years have shown that, contrary to what was previously believed, happiness is not what you get as a result of acquiring things, earning more money or achieving successes. It’s the other way round. When people are happy and fulfilled, this is when they are successful - when they produce, create and generate greater results, for organisations and for society as a whole.

The business case for having happiness underpin your strategy and company culture has been proven by businesses such as Google and Zappos. Research has shown that happy staff are more productive, more willing to take risks and be innovative, more committed to their work and less likely to take time off for sickness or to jump ship. Naturally all this affects the bottom line. A Gallup study showed that companies with engaged employees outperform those without by up to 202%. And yet, Gallup also showed last year that almost 90% of employees worldwide aren’t engaged in their work.

So how do we go about creating happier workforces? Obviously there’s lots that could be considered, from improving staff benefits to re-designing workspaces. For me though the most important characteristic of a happy organisation is one that supports the personal development of its employees and that actively helps them to flourish. 

For those working in talent management or L&D, here are some of the key areas you might want to consider…

  • Values and purpose: Are staff aware of how their personal values align with those of the organisation? Do they even know what those values are? Giving employees the chance to explore their own deepest motivations and what makes them tick, and helping them to bring more of what’s important to them to the job can make a huge difference in their sense of fulfilment.
  • Developing strengths: Shawn Anchor, one of the world’s leading experts in positive psychology in the workplace and author of The Happiness Advantage, uses the definition of happiness as: "the joy that we feel pursuing our potential.”   Our strengths are not just what we’re good at, but what we love to employ and where we feel ‘in flow’ when we are using them. Are strengths nurtured in your organisation and are your employees aware of their own unique talents that they bring to their roles?
  • Trust and autonomy: Daniel Pink, in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, highlights autonomy, alongside purpose and mastery, as one of the primary types of motivation. Creating an organisational culture where staff are trusted to get the job done to the best of their ability and where they are given the space to innovate and take the initiative is vital to promoting happiness.
  • Relationships: One of the key indicators in whether someone is happy in their job is whether they have good relationships with colleagues. Gallup results show that 50% of employees with a best friend at work reported that they feel a strong connection with their company, compared to just 10 percent of employees without a best friend at work. What are you doing to actively encourage close-knit teams and socialising amongst employees?
  • Being human: Above all else, if we want our employees to be happy, we have to allow them to be human. This means creating a culture of authenticity where people feel that they can be themselves and where they don’t have to put on a ‘front’ at work, where failures aren’t brushed under the carpet but are seen as learning opportunities, and where staff aren’t seen as numbers or cogs in a machine but are celebrated and supported as multi-faceted, complex human beings with varying needs and desires and where they are able to bring their whole selves to work.

When all of this is possible, perhaps we can all be arbejdsglaede.

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