Is it Reasonable for Employees to Expect Happiness at Work?

If work were fun, wouldn’t employees be the ones paying, rather than the other way around? I noticed in my own field of writing and editing that the plum positions at popular consumer publications pay the least, while the least-plum jobs at magazines that are not popular and cover esoteric or technical topics often pay the best. With that in mind, should any employee in a well-paying position expect happiness? Or is the endurance of misery part of what the employer is paying for? 

I saw an article in Forbes by Michael Papay last week about practices that help combat unhappiness in the workplace. First, I wonder what happiness at work means, and whether happiness becomes a point to leverage in salary cost savings. I’ve heard that happy employees tend to be more productive and provide better customer service, but I also can’t escape from the fact that “happiness” sometimes is a benefit touted to offset poor pay. What do you think the motivation is for companies to create happy employees? The ethics of not wanting people to suffer? The evidence that happier employees are better employees? The ability to leverage the happiness to offer lower-paying positions? Maybe all of the above?

The general consensus is that being happy at work is good. But to play devil’s advocate, I’ll offer a differing perspective. I had a friend in college, who said that when she was happy she had trouble concentrating. She said the good part of being miserable was she found it easier to concentrate on her studies. Do you think she was on to something? 

Papay says happy workplaces are “inclusive.” I can attest that workplaces that are not inclusive are definitely not happy. First, there’s discrimination due to race, ethnic group, or other demographics that can create unfair dynamics, and then there is the harder-to-police workplace cliques. I have had the experience of being comically left out of social gatherings. Comical because it was so overt, there was no effort made to hide it. I sat across from an employee, who had become my friend, and a mutual co-worker would ask her, right in front of me, to join her work circle of friends for lunch or other outings without also asking me. It was like inviting one person to a party but deliberately excluding the person standing next to her (even though you are friendly with her, too). Socially, most people wouldn’t do it, but somehow this former co-worker thought it was acceptable workplace etiquette. These kinds of slights seem insignificant, but can lead to misery. The question: Is there a way to monitor and prevent situations like this from arising? You can track and monitor inclusion from a diversity standpoint, but can you monitor inclusion from the standpoint of socializing among colleagues?

Papay writes about inclusion in his article from the perspective of including a wide breadth of employees in change initiatives. That’s important, but the place where misery is built is in the social realm at work. You can be invited into the conference room for the change initiative, but if you’re not invited to lunch the next day with the group, you’re not going to be happy.

Transparency is another of Papay’s suggestions for a happy workplace. Companies that are open with employees about both the good and bad create trust, and trust leads to happier employees. I think there could be some truth to that. I remember at one of the companies where I worked, layoffs were announced early, giving those affected at least a full month to plan their next move. This was a change from earlier practices in which employees were sometimes told days, or even hours, prior to the layoff. I have a friend who experienced a layoff at a past company in which she was given no advance notice. She was told at 4 p.m. on a Friday, and was instructed to be gone by 5 p.m. Most interesting to me was that this was not a performance-related layoff. When other employees witness such treatment of a colleague, it leads to a loss of trust and anxiety, which would make anyone miserable.

Papay says workplace happiness is promoted when managers show vulnerability. “In any sizable organization, there’s too much nuanced information for leaders to have all the answers. So be humble, and ask your team questions to tap into their wisdom,” he writes. As the former employee of a woman who liked to practice what I called “Stone Face” whenever a co-worker she supervised spoke to her, I can tell you it helps to show response and genuine reaction during conversations. I felt like I was talking to a bureaucrat sitting behind the desk at a government agency, stamping approvals and denials, rather than a person with feelings and the ability for input and exchange. At the time, I was insulted and angered. Now, I see it differently. I still don’t think she was necessarily a nice person, but I also think she acted that way because of a fear of vulnerability. She felt that if she showed emotion, good or bad, she would lose dominance. She was insecure and unhappy, and by refusing to be genuine with employees, she made sure others shared her condition. 

How do you create training, and supportive programs, that build secure managers and employees who are eager to spread happiness, rather than fear and despair? 

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