Invest in job satisfaction, and the results will come automatically

Work performance and happiness are like a chicken and egg: which comes first? A major US study provides answers.

Since the coronapandemic, we have all started to look more critically at our work and our work-life balance. Am I really satisfied with my work? Does my job still contribute to the kind of life I want to lead? Does my work give me energy or is my battery running low?

It is therefore not surprising that more and more employers are concerned with happiness at work – especially now that there are more vacancies than applicants and it is even more important to attract and retain motivated, talented employees. Emotionally, job satisfaction and good performance are connected: if you feel good about yourself, you perform better. Or is it the other way around: those who perform well, also feel good.

Heroic actions
A study that followed nearly one million American defence personnel for five years provides some convincing answers to this question. The servicemen were asked how happy and optimistic they felt, and a record was kept of who had earned an award for outstanding performance or even for heroic actions. Such an award is extraordinary; only 12 per cent of the million servicemen in the study were awarded during the five years of the study.

Luck turned out to be very important for exceptional performance. The 25 per cent of soldiers who were happiest at the start of the study received an award four times more often than the 25 per cent who were least happy. Happiness was even a better predictor of awards than any other factor (such as ancestry, education or rank).

Outstanding performance
Now you may think: can you compare the army with other types of organisations? The researchers say you can, because it was not only members of combat units who took part in the study. Most of the more than 190 types of positions within the US military – from cook to driver and from pilot to office worker – were represented in the study.

Happy employees
Happy employees are not only more likely to perform excellently, they also tend to be better colleagues and more likely to develop into managers. It is also known from the many studies that have been conducted into work happiness that happy employees are less likely to call in sick, are more creative and are less likely to leave the organisation.

Reasons enough to start working on happiness in your organisation. How do you do it? The researchers of the army study mention three important points:

1. Measure the happiness of employees and job applicants
It would be going too far to say that, in application procedures, a person’s sense of happiness is more important than work experience, knowledge and skills, but there are certainly advantages to hiring people who score highly on happiness and optimism. In cases of equal suitability for a job, happiness can really be an advantage, as it is a reliable predictor of later performance. Use scientifically based methods to measure happiness and do not rely on your intuition.

Adding a measurement of happiness to the application process costs little, and can be very rewarding. A company that uses happiness as a criterion will, based on the results of the army study, bring in 11 more top performers for every 1,000 new employees compared to a company that does not pay attention to happiness.

Not only during the application process, but also afterwards it is important to measure the happiness of employees. Results alone are not enough.

Suppose you have an exceptionally performing team, but with a bully as manager. Then those results are driven by a culture of fear. Sooner or later, performance will start to suffer and people may even become ill or overworked or resign. A periodic job satisfaction survey can detect such situations in time and solve the problem.

2. Develop job satisfaction among the staff
Scientific research concludes time and again that training courses specifically aimed at the well-being of employees do not cost much time, are cost-effective and have a high return. The following three exercises are simple and proven effective.

Letter of thanks: have employees prepare and read a 300-word letter of thanks to a colleague who has changed his or her (working) life in a positive way.

Gratitude journal: have employees write down three things that went well after each working day for a week. They also write down what caused those things to go well.

Core talents: have employees first take an online talent test. Then they are given the task of using their most important talents in a new way for a week. This also emphasises the importance of implementing Talent Oriented Leadership in your organisation.

The exercises Gratitude Journal and Core Talents produce a significant increase in happiness and a decrease in gloominess during a six-month period. The Gratitude Letter does the same for one month.

As simple and accessible as these exercises are, they obviously work best when employees are motivated and willing to put in some effort to keep doing them.

3. Keep employees who are happy
Not only the coronavirus is contagious, (work) happiness is too. Just like grumpiness and a negative attitude. What energy do you want to have floating around your organisation?

If you want a positive, optimistic culture, it is important to keep the people who are happy at work on board. Because the influence of one happy employee is like a stone thrown into the water: it has a ripple effect – not only on direct colleagues, but indirectly on the rest of the environment.

Finally, employee wellbeing initiatives work best when presented by senior leaders who are themselves convinced of their value and insist on the effort required from all employees. But above all, they must set a good example.

That is why organisation leaders themselves must also participate in the training courses and implement the desired behaviour in their daily work. Only then can happiness at work become a structural part of the organisational culture.