Wellbeing in the corporate world

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issue 06 / John Parr

Happiness in Corporate Environments

Is it realistic to expect to be happy at work?

We do not go to work to make friends, or to be happy; we go to work to earn a living. Whilst this may well be true, we spend a great deal of our lives at work. We also know that by managing stress, we live longer, develop resilience, have fewer days of sick leave, and are more productive. Why not then make being happy at work at least as important as being productive?

Studies undertaken by the University of Warwick found that happiness makes people more productive at work. In the laboratory, researchers found happiness made people approximately 12% more productive.

Google invested in Google in employee support and found that employee satisfaction rose by 37%.

Other studies show that those in healthy relationships with mothers have a longer life expectancy and maintain both physical and mental health. Human beings seem to do better overall when they are happy and content. Significantly contentment does not reduce ambition and drive, it enhances it.

Dr Eric Berne, the founder of the TA model of psychotherapy, discovered that synergy was achieved in teams by progressing through the stages of psychological imago adjustment (The Structure and Dynamics of Organisations and Groups E. Berne 1963). Berne’s work can be aligned with the normalising stages of group development (Bruce Tuckman 1965). Berne and Tuckman both indicate that progressing through the stages of development, we can see that collective team energy is lost in the process until synergy is achieved in the final stage. In Berne’s model, the transition in group imago is a function of individuals of clarifying interpersonal relationships. Synergy comes in the performing stage when individuals have effectively learned to “get along with” each other in respectful relationships. This frees up energy previously lost in agitation and interpersonal conflict. In other words, when the group begins to meld into a homogeneous whole people are happier and the team is more productive. There is no shortcut to this outcome, groups all transit these stages and attempting to bypass them simply does not work.

The jury has returned, and the verdict is, happy and emotionally healthy people contribute to the development of a healthy work environment, and increased engagement and productivity.

In the mid-1990s whilst researching for my MSc, I hypothesised that happiness is the core homeostatic emotion for humans. That is not to say we must be in a perpetual state of joy and elation, happiness is a wide range of emotion from calm, content and relaxed, through to joy at the extreme end of the continuum.

I reached this conclusion by observing the function of the central nervous system, and how its contribution in helping the body repair itself when damaged. I saw pain and discomfort as indicators that we needed to give our body the right conditions to self-heal. From this I extrapolated the hypothesis that emotions serve to reset us to a state of psychological calm and contentment and preparedness to enjoy what we do, just as physical sensations regulate our bodies to be healthy.

The core sensation is to be painless and physically reactive, with the core emotion being happy, i.e. content, and relaxed, i.e. emotionally we experience happiness when we are in a healthy relationship with ourselves and in relationship to others. Anger, sadness, and fear serve to inform us what we need to address to allow ourselves to return to our happy state, whenever the environment leads to us losing our peace (John Parr “Fore-play, Fair-play and Foul-play” 2023).

Sadly, social pressures and cultural norms often train us away from the healthy expression of our emotions and this in turn leads to reduced engagement and lower levels of contentment and satisfaction. Corporate culture is therefore a potential tool for creating a healthy, happy, and thriving working environment, or at its worst, can lead to creating a trend of bullying, agitation, ruptured working relationships, and reduced productivity. Clearly leaders do not want to have a negative influence on the work culture, however, a healthy culture that will engender creativity and productivity depends upon those at the top envisioning overseeing a happy environment. Having vision is not the end, it is the beginning.

The next step is to begin leading by example. Executives can seek to improve their emotional intelligence, an essential for planting the happiness seed. This can be achieved through seminars designed to train managers in growing their EI and develop emotionally assertive behaviours.

Next step, offer similar training to the rest of the organisation to seek alignment on subscribing to cultural change designed to engender respectful and healthy human interaction. Healthy interpersonal relationships are central to stimulating happiness at work. This is the bedrock of the concepts proposed by Berne and Tuckman. Productivity is in direct proportion to how much energy is gained through transiting the stages of group imago and achieving synergy. Productivity is an inverse proposition to the levels of interpersonal tension, agitation and stress caused by low emotional intelligence and organisational dysfunction.

So, the question stands, should we expect to be happy at work? I would broaden the question: Can we expect to be happy in our lives? I strongly believe the answer is yes on both counts. When we are happy the balance of neuropeptides (brain chemicals and hormones) in our system leads not only to reduced levels of stress, but increased health and wellbeing. There is no doubt that stress, from all forms of pressure, is our body’s natural defence reaction to changes in the environment. Our primitive brain sees change as potentially harmful, either life threatening or food providing. In other words, the fight flight response is continually reacting to stimuli as if it is saying, is this something I get to eat? Or is it something that gets to eat me? Either way, we have a release of adrenaline and cortisol accompanied by a host of other physiological changes, all designed to enhance our survival chances. Everything from an accident to the telephone ringing leads to this response. We also respond similarly where there is interpersonal tension, once again our primitive brain does not recognise the difference between real and perceived threat and adrenaline is released. We each have the potential to respond to stressors by seeing them as opportunities or as threats. If we respond to the stressor and use the chemistry to be resilient and find solutions, we are less likely to suffer the effects of stress response than if we become distressed. If we have learned how to manage stress and respond in a positive way, we will be more likely to be happy, more likely to be resilient and remain productive.

Therefore, investment in coaching, employee assistance programs, training in emotional assertiveness (a tool to develop emotional resilience and healthy human interaction), all show results in improved effectiveness in the work environment, highly functional teams, increased engagement, and improved customer satisfaction. Such investment will have a direct positive effect upon your bottom-line. Happiness at work is not a “nice to have”, it is the cornerstone of building an effective and resilient organisation. Happiness will increase employee engagement, commitment, alignment to corporate goals, loyalty, and reduced lost time from sickness and absenteeism. It is realistic and achievable.

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