Happiness in the Workplace

The importance of having a job extends far beyond the salary—social status, social relations, daily structure, and goals also exert a strong influence on people’s happiness.

The UN World Happiness Report measures “subjective well-being” or how people experience and evaluate their lives. The study was conducted across more than in more than 150 countries. The 2017 report was published on March 20, the UN’s International Day of Happiness.

Since the report’s first publication in April 2012, happiness has become an increasingly important measure of social progress. Main factors to support happiness are: caring, freedom, generosity, honesty, health, income, and good governance (not surprisingly a mix of cultural, social, economic, and political factors).

Which countries top the list?

  1. Norway
  2. Denmark
  3. Iceland
  4. Switzerland
  5. Finland
  6. Netherlands
  7. Canada
  8. New Zealand
  9. Australia
  10. Sweden

The U.S. and UK are 14th and 19th, respectively.

Norway is said to have achieved a high level of happiness—despite lower oil prices—by producing its oil slowly, and investing the proceeds for the future; in this way, Norway has insulated itself from boom and bust cycles. This requires high levels of mutual trust and shared purpose, as well as the other factors mentioned above.

In richer countries, the within-country differences are not explained primarily by income inequality, but by differences in mental health, physical health, and personal relationships. Income differences matter more in poorer countries, but mental health is still a major source of unhappiness.

Work (or its non-availability) is also a major factor influencing the happiness levels of individuals and communities. Let me look at this area more closely.

Employment and Unemployment

  • The importance of having a job for happiness holds across all the world’s regions.
  • Individuals do not adapt over time to becoming unemployed; unemployment can even have a “scarring” effect after employment is regained.
  • High unemployment has spillover effects, and negatively affects everyone, even those who are employed. It does this by heightening the sense of overall job insecurity.
  • Unemployment is devastating for the well-being of both men and women, although the effects tend to be felt more strongly by men.

Job Satisfaction

  • Different types of jobs correlate with high or low happiness. Blue-collar labor correlates with lower levels of happiness. This is true of all labor-intensive industries such as construction, mining, manufacturing, transport, farming, fishing, and forestry.
  • The importance of having a job extends far beyond the salary—social status, social relations, daily structure, and goals also exert a strong influence on people’s happiness.
  • There are diminishing returns to higher income: An extra $100 of salary is worth much more to someone at the lower level of income distribution than someone already earning much more.
  • Countries across North and South America, Europe, and Australia and New Zealand have more individuals reporting satisfaction with their jobs.


  • Worldwide, employee engagement with work is bleak. The percentage of people reporting they are actively engaged is typically less than 20 percent. That drops to less than 10 percent in Western Europe, and is even lower in Eastern Asia. A recent study found that paid work is ranked lower than any of the other 39 activities individuals can report being engaged in (except being sick in bed).
  • Business owners report being much more actively engaged at work compared with others.

Other factors having an important influence on engagement, include:

  • Work-life balance (a strong predictor of people’s happiness)
  • Job variety and the need to learn new things
  • Level of individual autonomy enjoyed by the employee
  • Job security
  • Opportunities for advancement and promotion
  • Social capital (as measured through the support one receives from fellow workers)
  • Competence of bosses, which is a strong predictor of job satisfaction
  • Having a say in the policy decisions made by the organization.

The UN report is a snapshot of the present. In regards to work, we haven’t yet seen how automation (“The Fourth Industrial Revolution” in the language of The World Economic Forum) will affect happiness. Will the most automated countries achieve higher levels of happiness or will their happiness scores collapse as meaningful work opportunities decline?

Some might argue that people can be retrained. Retraining hasn’t been a high priority during this recent period of globalization, and the social consequences are only just beginning to be felt.

Terence Brake is the director of Learning & Innovation, TMA World (http://www.tmaworld.com/training-solutions/), which provides blended learning solutions for developing talent with borderless working capabilities. Brake specializes in the globalization process and organizational design, cross-cultural management, global leadership, transnational teamwork, and the borderless workplace. He has designed, developed, and delivered training programmes for numerous Fortune 500 clients in the United States, Europe, and Asia. Brake is the author of six books on international management, including “Where in the World Is My Team?” (Wiley, 2009) and e-book “The Borderless Workplace.”


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