Measuring happiness – is it good for your organisation?

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Measuring happiness – is it good for your organisation?
By Noeleen Doherty

The UK government recently announced that it will, in the near future introduce a so-called ‘happiness survey’. Are such surveys of any real benefit to the country, and in particular, could organisations gain from their use? This article contends that in both the national and organisational context surveying employee attitudes and opinions can be a valuable litmus test of individual and organizational well-being.

We spend substantial time and energy in the "pursuit of happiness" and consideration of what contributes to our level of happiness is a very worthwhile pursuit.

What is happiness?

Abraham Lincoln very astutely said that ‘most people are as happy as they let themselves be’. This recognises that there is an individual propensity to a certain level of happiness, however positive psychologists would argue that happiness is not hardwired – only about 25% as opposed to 40-60% for most hereditary traits. Rather it is malleable and can change with context. This makes it a particularly important issue for organisations.

In the organisational context, often money or material wealth are given considerable ‘air-time’. Yet wealth and material benefits aren’t always a key to happiness; for example it has been shown that lottery winners are happy in the short term, but after a little while their happiness levels revert back to the norm. In fact, research suggests that happiness levels have remained virtually the same in industrialised countries since World War II, despite incomes rising considerably. So despite growth in GDP and economic prosperity, general levels of happiness have tended to remain pretty stable.

To understand happiness or life satisfaction ratings, it is helpful to understand some of the components that contribute to most people's experience of happiness.

One of the most important influences on happiness and well-being is social relationships. People who score high on life satisfaction tend to have close and supportive family and friends, whereas those who do not have a close social circle are more likely to be dissatisfied. Bringing the issue of happiness into sharper relief in the organisational context, measuring happiness is an essential issue for managers. When considered as a component of well-being, happiness is a very important area for organisations to keep a close eye on.

Do we really want to measure happiness?

The benefits of doing this are quite clear for managers. First of all, it provides an index of how well things are going within the organisational context. The ability for an organisation to track well-being over time is a very useful litmus test of the ‘climate’ and the success of policies and practices. And this impacts substantially on organisational performance.

There is no one key to happiness or life satisfaction, but rather a recipe that includes a number of ingredients. So some of the key ingredients which can be impacted by organizations are how much individuals enjoy their work, whether it is paid or unpaid, and whether they feel that it is meaningful and important. These aspects contribute to life satisfaction. On the contrary if work is going poorly because of bad circumstances or a poor fit with the person's strengths, life satisfaction can be lowered. Another key ingredient to happiness is social relationships, so supportive work colleagues and managers are important. It is also important to have goals that are in synchrony with personal values, and to be able to make progress toward those goals.

So what makes for happiness?

Managers need to look at the ingredients within the recipe to address well-being and happiness in an organisation. The organisational context has a number of major elements where policies and practices can be put in place to support satisfaction and development in individual employees. We have known for quite some time that within the organisational context there needs to be a focus on elements such as organisational climate, the philosophy and ethos of the organisation. Another aspect would be social relationships and how supportive management is. Yet another would be, for example, how supported the individual feels in achieving their career and work aspirations, with such measures as training and development and career support. In an organisational context, there are issues other than money which must be given consideration in supporting well-being and are major constituents of the recipe for happiness. Recent research indicated that the work environment, company culture and workplace morale were the most important factors for New Zealand office-goers, while salary is one of the least significant of all. Aspects such as how supported they feel, how positive the organisational climate is and the support network and policies and practices within the organisation are more important than purely finance and salary. So ensuring as far as possible good person-organization fit, person-job fit and job matching, training and development provision, career management, performance management, a healthy and safe work environment and good communication are significant contributory factors to both organizational and individual well-being.

How common are such surveys in organisations?

There is a growing surge in awareness of, and willingness to invest in well-being as a central issue. Organisations such as Investors in People and the CIPD are currently running seminars bringing together a wide range of organisations to discuss and share experiences of this aspect of the organisational context.

Whilst a number of larger organisations already conduct regular climate surveys and employee satisfaction surveys, it is useful for consideration by small businesses, too: a handful of individuals often contribute across a number of roles and the loss of one person from a small organisational can be substantial.

To sum up

So to sum up, particularly addressing sceptics: whilst happiness is a transient state, there are important organisational contextual issues that are essential to supporting people and their well-being as the life blood of the organisation. Good management policy and practices are central to that, and the organisational context can make a substantial impact on how an individual experiences their work life and how that contributes to their life satisfaction. There is an onus on organisations to make sure that they create and perpetuate a climate where employee well-being is key. Happiness surveys can have a valuable place within that.

Noeleen Doherty is Senior Research Fellow at Cranfield School of Management.

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