Do You Have What It Takes to Be Happy at Work?

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Very few people have NOT had a terrible job that made them terribly unhappy.

I’ve had nine jobs since starting my career in 2007. It goes without saying that there were jobs that were a bad fit for me. In fact, I once had a job that I quit after only 4 weeks.


I tell you… Even the four weeks that I spent there were excruciatingly painful: a total jerk of a boss – a toxic working culture – top-down management – meetings full of tension and not to mention the terrible atmosphere in the office…


The job had such a spill-over effect on my life that I was suffering from anxiety and depression for a couple of months. I went as far as removing this job from my resume altogether.


On to the nuggets of this post…


New insights in positive psychology have contributed to great new business practices in employee retention and the novel role of a chief happiness officer. (Yes, I am serious – that’s an actual job title in big companies!)


The offerings for employee wellbeing programs, yoga and meditation classes, boot camps and executive retreats are exploding.


Yet, I still hear about far too many people who are unhappy at work.


Where does it all go wrong? Why do so many people hate their jobs?


Over the years, I have studied what makes people happy at work, read books on positive psychology and captured the key ingredients to happiness at work.


Here are the 6 key ingredients for happiness at work.

1) Personal Wellbeing

What some leaders still don’t recognize is that the physical and mental wellbeing of their employees defines the quality of their output.

People are … human. Which means that they bring their whole selves to work. Insomnia, mental illness, becoming a first-time parent, issues around relationships at home, stress, or a parent dying – are just a few of the issues people bring to work indirectly.

Whether you like it or not, people will not be able to leave their problems at home.

A tired employee will struggle with the attention and quality of their output. An employee with a dying parent at home will be anxious as hell to not miss the last day by their parent’s bedside. The impact of stress outside of work on the job is significant.

What does that mean for executives?

Investing in supporting people in their personal lives helps boost performance, engagement, and retention at work. Period.

2) Purpose

A lot of millennials, the generation born roughly between the 1980s and 2000, would trade a high-paying job without purpose for a meaningful job at lower pay, hands-down.

The feeling of contributing to something larger than ourselves is one of the greatest motivators you can tap into as a leader.

Some companies manage to turn their customer-driven mission into action while others leave it at presenting fancy, fluffy slides on company updates.

Why not design your projects like a cause? Even if you are not a purpose-driven business, there are always ways to increase the emotional connection people feel towards reaching a certain goal.

3) Challenge

Apart from feeling a sense of purpose, people also need to be challenged to feel fulfilled in their jobs. Applying their skills to tackle problems and developing mastery is what drives high employee engagement.

Ever felt “in the zone?” Hungarian psychologist Professor Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (this name is the craziest EVER!) first studied work engagement in depth and discovered that the secret to the optimal performance of the most successful people was their ability to enter the state of flow frequently and consciously.

“Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.”

(Beata Souders, Positive Psychology Blog)


Flow – that feeling of being fully immersed into our work – requires that we move out of our comfort zone.

When our skills match the challenge and we can fully focus on the task at hand we perform at our best.

4) Recognition

You don’t have to throw happy-go-lucky company parties to recognize your employees. And more money is very rarely the answer to an unsatisfied employee.

Showing appreciation does not cost us anything, yet it’s one of the biggest gaps I have seen in my corporate experience.

It’s about the simple gestures of recognition. Saying thank you when someone did a great job and naming what you most liked about their work, praising individuals in a team meeting, marking them a small gift for their birthdays, etc. Even tiny gestures such as greeting your employees by their name regularly goes a long way.

5) Relationships

Gallup, one of the most well-established workplace satisfaction measurements, have found that a “best friend at work” is a great predictor for employee engagement. This KPI is often misunderstood. What is meant by a best friend is a person we can trust and enjoy being around.


We are social animals and therefore need social interactions. So the people we surround ourselves with at work have a huge impact on our happiness at work.


You probably remember a time, as well as I do, when the rude behavior of a colleague made our whole day suck.


And the bosses! People don’t quit a job, the saying goes — they quit a boss. This is among the top reasons people quit their jobs.


It’s tough to be a good boss and there are way too many bad ones out there.

So investing in developing bosses’ “soft” skills is really crucial to keep good employees.

6) Skill Match

Often people end up in the wrong job, which is not making the most of the employee’s skills. Not only does this frustrate employees, but this can also lead to great employees leaving the company.


In a great place to work, jobs are designed around people and their skills – not the other way around!


Does your employee love analytics? Give them more tasks to develop that skill, even if that means you cross-collaborating with other departments. If your employee is happy with the work they get to do, the performance on the job will naturally increase as a by-product.


An amazing exercise I read about recently on Marcus Buckingham’s blog is to optimize your skill match is to take a piece of paper and fold it in half. On the right, you put the header LOVE and on the right LOATHE.


For one full day, whenever you are working on a task (regardless of how small) put it on the list on the “good” or “bad” side. This will give you a great basis for discussion for potential adjustments with your manager – things you want to do more and less of.


A Word on Work Hygiene Factors

Hygiene factors, including salary, work-life balance, resources, and clear expectations make up the baseline for a job that is just okay. Hygiene factors are well-understood. However, they are NOT enough to create happiness at work.

Without these hygiene factors, you would not even think about the four more elements that drive fulfillment.

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