Special Report
A special report is content that is edited and produced by the special reports unit within The Irish Times Content Studio. It is supported by advertisers who may contribute to the report but do not have editorial control.

The pursuit of workplace happiness

With modern workplaces safe and comfortable and workers well-paid and looked after, they still don’t seem to be happy. Why?

Happiness is an interesting topic, according to Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) director Mary Connaughton. “We’re finding that people have changing expectations and a number of things are driving those changes,” she says. “There is the multi-generational workplace and there can be clashes between what matters most to people at different life stages. Also, some of the rewards that might be trendy at the moment are not dealing with the actual issues faced by employees. If an employee is experiencing pressure in work or with their work-life balance, employer gimmicks might not actually deal with them.”

The wellbeing agenda is also important. “We have more diverse workplaces, people are facing longer commutes, we have more parents in the workplace and all of these things create differing expectations,” Connaughton adds. “Young people coming into the workplace now have an expectation that their wellbeing will be addressed.”

This is leading to a more personalised workplace relationship, with people wanting their work to fit in with their personal lives.

“There is much more interest in flexibility,” she says. “That could be hours, ability to work from home, control over how they do their work, wellbeing, and there is a whole new awareness around mental-health issues as well. Being valued is one of the key things about happiness in work. Sometimes, we use the label “compassionate work environment”. It’s where employers show they care by creating a positive environment of praise and support and where people have a say in their workplace. These things don’t work if people are saying there is not enough flexibility and they are under pressure in terms of workload. They want support for work-life balance and how and when they work.”


It’s all about culture

It's all about culture, says Matheson HR director Lorraine Roche. "If the culture promotes bad behaviours, that leads to dysfunction and unhappiness and demotivation," she says. "Culture is driven by values and at Matheson our values are at the forefront of everything we do. It's all about having open communications channels where people feel they are valued and supported. Of course, people want a good competitive salary, but work-life balance is a very big one now. We understand that people have a life outside work. We have an Agile programme to create opportunities for people to manage their work-life blend. We offer flexible hours and facilitate working from home where appropriate."

The firm also has a number of programmes to support staff in relation to specific issues. “We have maternity and paternity programmes to help people taking leave transition out and back into the workplace,” she says. “We also offer support to people who may be struggling with the responsibilities of becoming a parent for the first time. We have an informal buddy system to support people coming back into work after a period of time – this gives them someone to chat to or vent to if necessary.”

Prof Maeve Houlihan, director of the UCD Quinn School of Business, believes a certain amount of unhappiness is programmed into us as human beings. “We give a lecture on motivation to first years and we cover all the usual things like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. And nothing has really changed over the years. Striving is part of our nature. It keeps us open to new challenges and learning. Satisfaction and happiness are thrown out there as things to be aimed at but they really are just short-term feelings. Dissatisfaction is designed into us to help us survive in a dynamic, changing environment. If you’re too happy in business, you can become complacent.”

She also says we have to accept disappointment as a fact of life. “We can’t always get what we want. With millennials, there is a big emphasis on achievement. This is a hyper trend. But it all comes down to how you define achievement and that comes back to the idea of contributing and making a difference. If you are cleaning floors or moving paper from A to B and that is helping other people do their jobs and making the organisation work better, you are achieving something.”

Problems can arise

Problems can arise when roles become superseded and people no longer feel they are contributing or achieving. “Sometimes, job roles don’t change fast enough,” Prof Houlihan says. “Employers need to look at what their employees are doing and see where they could make it more meaningful. You don’t want someone else to do this for you. Good organisations should be paying attention and getting it right.”

“Happiness is an interesting topic,” says Irish Times Training managing director Imelda Rey. “In the past, the very obvious things that influenced people when they left jobs were bad bosses, toxic work culture and things like that,” she says. “Google produced a report a few years back which put psychological safety on top. This means having an environment where it is safe to fail. Millennials and generation Z want an environment where they can be innovative and creative, one where they are free to fail as that is part of the innovation process.”

However, there is another report from Deloitte with a somewhat different conclusion. "Deloitte surveyed 10,000 people in 119 countries and the number one reason for them to leave a job was an inability to learn and grow," Rey notes. "Continuous learning is now important both for personal and skills development. People are coming out of college with many technical skills but need soft skills for management and leadership roles. They expect to develop these at work. Money may have an influence on what job you take but it is not a huge factor when it comes to staying."

Money is still important though, according to Mary Connaughton. “People want good pay, most of all they want to be rewarded for work done, and they want job security. They want fair pay and good working conditions. All the other things won’t count if the pay is unfair, the working conditions are poor and there is no job security.”

Barry McCall

Barry McCall is a contributor to The Irish Times