Applauz Blog

Why Employee Happiness Is the New Engagement

Published: August 10, 2021

Last Updated: November 3, 2022

  7 min read

By: Michelle Cadieux

Low employee engagement continues to be a problem for many businesses. An entirely new approach is needed, one that puts employee happiness first.

Every year, businesses invest a great deal of time and resources towards improving employee engagement.

Adopting remote work policies has become a popular tactic most recently.

However, despite the time, money, and efforts, companies are STILL having trouble moving the needle on employee engagement, and many workers continue to search for other opportunities.

Why are employees still unsatisfied?

In a recent Forbes article titled Workplace Engagement Is Good. Happiness Is Even Better the author speaks with expert and advocate of positive psychology Eric Karpinski about why this is happening.

Many organizations approach employee engagement the wrong way, Karpinski explains. They overly focus on the benefits to the organization; on desired outcomes like higher productivity, profitability, or what they want to see, such as greater loyalty and commitment from their people. 

According to Karpinski, “to the individual contributor, this sounds suspiciously like a request to work harder without any clear benefits in terms of pay or working conditions.” As a result, employees feel, at best, disconnected from their organization’s efforts, at worse, totally cynical.

A misconception about engagement lies at the heart of the problem.

Engagement is tied to an employee's emotional experience. When an employee is engaged, they are personally invested in their work. They have a sincere desire to perform well. That motivation doesn't manifest out of thin air. And it surely doesn't arise by way of a singular top-down initiative.

So where does it come from?

A shift in mindset

According to Karpinski, if your company wants to improve engagement levels, your first priority should be employee happiness. 

Most people strive to be happy, he says. So it’s natural for humans to seek out positive experiences. By focusing on creating opportunities for positive experiences in the workplace; you can tap into people's intrinsic motivation to increase their own happiness.

When you show employees that you genuinely care about their happiness and well-being, they will return the favour with their renewed energy and commitment.

It's essentially a fancy way of saying, "you scratch my back and ill scratch yours."

Or as workplace expert Heather Younger states in her book The 7 Intuitive Laws of Employee Loyalty, “very few employees will remain loyal to you if you are not loyal to them.”

Employee loyalty is changing

A recent article by Fast Company This is the new battleground in the fight to retain employees shares a similar sentiment.

The author, Scott Dust, explains how the psychology of employee loyalty works. Three major factors drive employee commitment:

  • Continuance commitment: When employees stay with an employer because of the pay they receive. 
  • Affective commitment: When employees stay because they feel emotionally attached to the people, the culture, or the work itself.
  • Normative commitment: When employees stay out of social obligations or feelings of right and wrong as it relates to employment.

Statistics show that normative commitment has hit rock bottom. People no longer stay at a company out of social obligation or pressure. And the average employee will not leave an organization for a modest salary increase.

One driver remains: affective commitment.

What does this mean? When employees feel their company is looking out for their interests, they are more likely to form an emotional connection to that workplace. And as a result, they will be more likely to stay loyal in the long term. 

Cultivating that emotional connection is possible. It starts with developing human-centric work practices that show your concern for your employees' happiness and well-being.

The Next Frontier of Engagement

If you stay on top of recent HR trends, you won't have anything to argue about. In other words, employee wellness is probably on your radar.

But, Dust warns corporate-driven wellness initiatives are only part of the solution.

Typical elements of a wellness program, such as gym memberships, stress-reduction apps, or even paid time off, do not wholly address the issue.

Even a recent study by Harvard and the University of Chicago found that wellness programs focused on physical well-being don't produce "any substantial effects on work outcomes, health-care spending or objective health measures."

Karpinski, the workplace expert quoted at the top of this article, makes a similar statement.

He says many upscale perks like free gourmet meals, nap pods, pool tables and massage therapists are useful for recruiting and boosting some positive emotions like "satisfaction, contentment, and comfort." But they don't "provide the energy and activation that drive engagement."

What's missing, then? It's simple -- it's the human factor. 

Creating a human workplace

Human problems require human solutions. 

Think about it: People don't feel happier about their work because of a faceless app or a gym membership. Although these perks are nice, they only exert minimal influence over an employee’s emotional experience at work.

Employee engagement is driven in part by intangible factors as well. In other words, engagement is a function of the positive emotions employees experience every day. 

For example:

  • When an employee feels safe and comfortable sharing a personal story and has a heartfelt laugh with a colleague or manager.
  • When an employee feels genuinely cared for because their manager actively checks on their stress level each week. 
  • When an employee feels a deep sense of pride and fulfillment when they receive public acknowledgement for their efforts and work.

These examples illuminate an essential truth. Employees' emotional experiences are shaped by what happens on the front lines every day. To that end, if you want to improve engagement, you must design a work environment that makes space for such positive moments.

The help of managers is central to achieving this goal.

This brings us to the most important part of this article: simple practices that managers can start doing today.

If done regularly, these habits will encourage positive moments and foster a human-centric environment. This is the kind of workplace that people connect with emotionally. As a result, this connection will inspire engagement and a sense of responsibility and belonging that compels workers to be more productive and stay loyal for years to come.

Simple Practices to Help Build a Human Workplace

Make appreciation a regular practice

The positive impact and importance of recognition are undeniable. Taking the time to highlight small wins each week will build happiness and morale among your team.

Countless studies back up this claim.

For example, a recent 2021 study of manufacturing workers showed that workers who felt valued were more than four times as likely to report high levels of work engagement (59% vs.13%) and less likely to say they feel stressed out on a typical workday (16% vs. 66%). That's huge!

As Karpinski says, "showing recognition and appreciation is one of the simplest, cheapest and most effective ways to increase both happiness and engagement in the workplace."

The first step to cultivating greater appreciation in the workplace is creating a dedicated space for recognition. 

Many formal and informal solutions are available to support this goal, including:

  • Implementing a peer-to-peer recognition platform.
  • Taking 5 minutes at the end of your weekly team meeting to give employee shout-outs. The manager can take the lead and open the floor to anyone else who wants to share.
  • Starting a "recognition" or "appreciation" channel on your internal chat tool. This can be a digital space where people can share their support for each other.
  • Sending out a weekly "recognition" email to your team highlighting the small wins from that week.

Whether it's digital or face-to-face, there are many ways to create space for appreciation in your workweek. It only takes a few minutes, and it will have an instant impact.

Remember: Specificity is key to giving powerful recognition.

Blanket statements like “you’re the best” or “great job” are acceptable, but truly meaningful recognition should go into more detail as to why the employee is so great. When your recognition is timely and specific, positive feelings will naturally follow.

Mix up team meetings by making efforts to get to know each other

As social creatures, we crave connection. Getting personal (within reason, of course) with our teammates is a critical part of fostering moments of positivity at work.

If every meeting you host is strictly business, you are limiting the potential for happy or positive interactions to arise. In contrast, opening the floor to learning about each other creates positive moments and fosters social connections.

Here are some ideas:

  • Asking ice-breaker questions can be a fun way to start meetings. For example, asking people about their first job, their favourite quote, favourite vacation spot, or best advice they’ve received. 
  • Scheduling periodic activity sessions with the goal of simply getting to know each other. Have people share photos from their everyday life and invite them to share a few words about each image.

Getting to know teammates’ lives outside of work is key to making space for positive moments. It will not only be a fun, positive experience, but it will help build trust and strong social connections.

The quality of our relationships at work determines how emotionally connected we are to our jobs. And people are more likely to feel connected with leaders and colleagues who they know and understand on a personal level. Simply put, being human and genuine at work pays off. 

Make space for candour and vulnerability 

In professional settings, people work hard to maintain their appearance. The goal is to be perceived as intelligent and capable at any cost. 

But the nature of the workplace is changing. 

Workplace expert Daniel Coyle argues otherwise in his bestselling book Culture Code: Secrets of Highly Successful Groups.

He affirms that vulnerability is a key ingredient in building high-performing teams. 

Realistically, we are human, and we all make mistakes. It’s only natural to feel overwhelmed, stressed and to need the help and support of others sometimes.

Attempting to be all-knowing and perfect will only backfire, especially if you are a leader. This will create a rigid environment that lacks genuine human connection and psychological safety. It is easy to understand why people would feel disengaged in such an environment

That said, being vulnerable and candid may elicit a negative, knee-jerk reaction, as many people find it difficult to admit their shortcomings at work.

Still, the ability to have and manage tough conversations is a critical part of building a meaningful work experience. And most importantly, building a psychologically safe workplace.

For example:

  • Taking responsibility for a mistake that you made.
  • Accepting that you don’t have all the answers and need help.
  • Talking openly about feeling mentally tired and acknowledging you need a break. 
  • Receiving feedback about your management style from your team.

In his book, Coyle gives an example of how leaders at Pixar plan moments of discomfort with "BrainTrust" meetings. When a film is in production, directors and producers come together to give their most candid opinions of the film. The creators will "analyze the film's flaws in breathtaking detail."

By letting team members give each other candid feedback about each other's work, a space for trust and vulnerability can be created. Or it could be as simple as sharing stories of success and failure. Your group can support candour and vulnerability in precisely the way you see fit, depending on the level of comfort you have with these new work practices. 

Final Thoughts

The idea that work should bring you meaning and belonging would seem laughable to an industrial-era worker who was just trying to survive.

Today, work is a core pillar of our lives, but also our identities. It serves an entirely new purpose. Yet, most companies continue to base their policies on industrial-age ideas. Take the 5-day, 40-hour workweek as an example.

Can these outdated models meet the needs of modern-day employees?

The pandemic forced millions of people to ask themselves this question.
Meanwhile, technology has made it easier for people to acquire new skills and work from anywhere, effectively shifting power into the workers' hands.

If companies want to engage and retain employees, they need to adapt. Businesses that seek to modernize their work practices and put people's wellbeing first will be the ones to succeed in retaining talent, and ultimately, the ones to come out on top.

A Happier Workplace


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