Are You Happy at Work?

Do you welcome the challenge of a new day on the job? Do you feel as though you are making a difference through your work? Do you find a higher purpose in what you do for 40-plus hours a week?

July 21, 2011  | 4 min read

American Psychological Association (APA) figures from 2007 show that 74 percent of employees cite work as a significant source of stress, with 20 percent admitting to calling in sick as a result. The American Institute of Stress estimates that job stress costs the U.S. economy $300 billion annually. In a lackluster economy, it might seem like more of a luxury than a necessity to worry about how happy you are at work. With $300 billion dollars on the line, however, employers can’t ignore the fact that fostering a happy working environment is a worthwhile effort, and currently a number of Pepperdine professors are working to help bridge the gap between employer demands and employee happiness.

A number of years ago, Kenneth Ko, now an assistant professor of decision sciences at the Graziadio School of Business and Management, worked for a privately- owned company that maintained and encouraged a “family atmosphere” until it was bought out by a major financial organization. “It became more corporate, like the bottom line was the only thing that counted. There was a colder atmosphere from the top, which pervaded all the way down the company,” he remembers.

After losing its family atmosphere, the company lost members of its employed “family,” including Ko, who left after two years under the reformed managerial style. It was his impetus to get into teaching, a turn of events he calls “a blessing, in hindsight.” Since joining the faculty at Pepperdine, Ko has worked with colleague Charles Kerns, Graziadio School associate professor of applied behavioral sciences, to research the correlation between happiness and performance. They have found that one of the more notable variables contributing to a person’s happiness at work is whether or not that employee feels there is a higher purpose to what they do other than simply collecting a paycheck.

“Work can be one important source of happiness, since another major source of happiness is accomplishment,” explains Kerns, who developed a managerial leadership system—called Happy-High Performance System—through his private consulting firm Corperformance. He adds that the concept applies to any type of honest work. “you don’t want people to be just kicking the can down the road, but to find meaning in their work. Take janitors, for example— they’re not just scrubbing the floors in a grocery store; they are responsible for increasing the number of customers that come in, which increases the chance of sales. They can have positive interactions with customers, which adds to a pleasing atmosphere for the customer and a chance of returning business.”

Kerns and Ko’s research has shown time and again that, as Ko experienced at the company he left behind, managers set the tone in the workplace that affects each subsequent link in the chain. The problem, he says, is that too many leaders focus all their attention on the bottom line without developing practices that create a happy experience for the employees—to their own detriment, says Lisa Osborn (MA ’93, PsyD ’99), adjunct professor of psychology at the Graduate School of Education and Psychology. She calls the process of employers working to improve physical and psychological well- being of their staff, “enlightened self-interest.”

“Companies that have psychologically healthy workplaces have significantly lower turnover than the national average,” states Osborn, whose work with the American Psychological Association included helping start the Psychologically Healthy Workplace (PHW) Program. The program educates employers about the inextricable link between employee well-being and organizational performance, and awards those already doing an exceptional job. “The people that apply for our award are already believers. It’s inspiring from my point of view, because they really do care about their employees—they are places I would want to work.”

She reflects on a community preventative health organization and recent state and national PHW award-winner, whose application she perused in her role as current chair of the California Psychological Association's PHW program. “They took a hard look at their own practices and realized that they should ‘walk their talk' with their own employees. So they examined the snacks in the lunch room and made sure their employees had adequate break time for exercise in the gym they had built for the community they serve.”

Kerns and Ko encourage their clients to make time, and opportunity, for employees to nurture physical and psychological health outside of work, including vacation time. “you need that time, even if you have the best job in the world. you come back a happier, more productive employee,” says Ko. But when actually in the workplace environment, the key to a happier workplace lies, not surprisingly, in basing interpersonal relationships on a foundation of open communication and respect.

“Working relationships are still relationships, and I think all good relationships start with the same fundamentals,” says Osborn. “First of all, respect—for the person and for their differences. Followed by understanding, compassion, and empathy. This is especially true for a supervisor.”

Kerns adds that it is managers who are ultimately responsible for engaging their workers, and giving employees clear and motivating direction. He adds, “Leaders also need to recognize people when they do a good job. My research has found that managers need to give four positive comments to every negative, just to be perceived as being positive 50 percent of the time. People simply remember the negatives more.”

So, what can you do if your answer was “No” to the question “Are you happy at work?” Osborn suggests first taking a look inward. “Workers need to take a good look at their self- care practices—getting enough sleep, good food, and fulfilling their end of the agreement we have in workplaces to do our best. And to learn strategies for managing work stress.”

Ko knows from experience that reevaluating your career choice can prove fruitful and lead to new, exciting opportunities. However, Kerns always advises his students and employees to “never quit your job until you have another one.”

If you want to keep your job and increase your happiness, the advice from the experts is simple and can be universally applied to any situation: “Do the very best you can, every day. Write down why your job is important, find the purpose and the positive,” says Kerns. And, Ko adds, sometimes the best way to create happiness in yourself is to spread a little happiness to others. “Be the type of person that can create a happy atmosphere as best as you can.”