How to Kill Happiness at Work



WooHoo Inc. (whose founder, Alexander Kjerulf, sat down with us for a Q&A last summer) recently released some interesting findings in its survey of more than 700 workers from around the globe about bad days at work—how common they are and what makes them bad.

Some may argue that a bad work day could have nothing to do with the job itself. And that’s true—but rarely. The survey asked, “The last time you had a bad day at work, was it bad because of factors at work or factors outside of work?” 74% of respondents said it was factors at work, while only 2.8% said the bad day was caused by factors outside of work.

Ouch. So what about work makes us unhappy? Here are the top 5 ways to kill happiness, according to that survey:

  1. Bad bosses (lack of help and support)
  2. Bad relationships with coworkers (negative coworkers, complaining, bullying)
  3. A lack of direction/clarity (uncertainty about vision and strategy)
  4. No praise for our work (lack of recognition for work)
  5. High workload (busyness)

The lowest ranking factors for bad days were lack of perks and bad physical work environment, which further confirms that workers are more interested in meaningful work than, say, a nap pod or a Thursday beer cart.

It should also be noted that pay isn’t part of this list. What’s the relationship between pay and happiness? A telling Glassdoor study of more than 200,000 users suggested that a 10% increase in pay is only associated with a 1-point increase in satisfaction. The same study also found that there’s actually a diminishing return on happiness for every extra $1,000 in earnings.

How not to kill happiness at work

It actually comes down to everyday things that leaders and managers do or say, according to research from Professor Teresa Amabile from Harvard Business School.

Teresa studied daily diaries of 238 professionals in 26 project teams in 7 different companies to learn about their inner work lives. She told HBS Working Knowledge forum that “people have incredibly rich, intense, daily inner work lives…those feelings, which are so important for performance, are powerfully influenced by particular daily events.”

Further, the study found the top 5 leader behaviors that have a positive influence on people’s feelings are:

  1. Emotional support
  2. Positive feedback
  3. Public recognition for good performance
  4. Active listening and respect for individual opinions
  5. Collaborating on work

Notice how lack of praise was listed earlier as a happiness killer. And here survey results show that public praise is a happiness booster.

Results + relationships = happiness

At WooHoo Inc., their model for employee happiness is built on two things: results and relationships. Praise is such a good tactic because it hits both of these. Alexander explains that:

Praise at work is important because it shows people that they do good work, make a difference and get results…But lately we’ve realized that there is more to positive feedback: It’s also about strengthening relationships in the workplace. When you praise someone else, it shows that you actually pay attention to them and are able to see their good work and positive qualities.

In essence, praise gets you two for one on the happiness meter.

Happy work, happy life

Results from Globoforce’s new WorkHuman Research Institute report echo the Harvard Business School findings, particularly the importance of emotional support when it comes to employee happiness. Check out the chart below:

perception of caring on happiness

Workers who believe their company cares about them as a person are 17% more likely to be happy at work and 9% more likely to be happy at home. If you want to learn more about how a toxic environment at work can impact home life, read our blog post on Spillover, Crossover, and Emotional Spirals at Work and Home.

Our survey also shows that appealing to workers’ humanity and actively trying to build a more human work environment can reap rewards when it comes to employee happiness. Those workers who believe their leaders care about creating a human workplace are also more likely to be happy at work and happy at home.

Why we shouldn’t kill happiness

Richard Branson said it best: “If the person who works at your company is not appreciated, they are not going to do things with a smile.”

WorkHuman speaker Shawn Achor has extensively researched the benefits of a happy, positive mindset—check out his famous TED talk if you haven’t seen it already. And a new study from the Social Market Foundation and the University of Warwick showed that happy employees are on average 12% more productive—and as high as 20% more productive than their peers.

Dr. Sgroi, a researcher in the study, noted: “The driving force seems to be that happier workers use the time they have more effectively, increasing the pace at which they can work without sacrificing quality.”

All of these studies confirm what should be obvious to most people today—that a miserable work environment can put a serious drain on time, money, and resources. Forward-thinking companies should focus on the leader behaviors outlined above to reap the benefits of a happier workforce.


In Search of Happiness at Work

An eBook for the International Day of Happiness

5 Tips for Happier Employees

A Year Looking On the Bright Side

Optimism 101: How to Lead in Times of Change

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