Wellbeing at work is more than Happiness

More and more business owners are realising both the monetary and moral benefits of high employee wellbeing at work. On the monetary side we know that employees with high wellbeing produce higher quality work (greater customer satisfaction), and experience fewer absences (lower sick leave costs). On the moral side of the equation as businesses look beyond pure profits and towards initiatives of corporate social responsibility, showing care for staff wellbeing is a fantastic place to start. However, while there are many positives of high staff wellbeing, starting the wellbeing journey can be confusing for business leaders.

Blinded by happiness

Think back to the last time you picked up the flyer or saw the poster on the wall for a workplace wellbeing initiative - what did you see? There’s a good bet that you saw a group of broad smiles on the faces of deliriously happy staff. You see wellbeing has a great PR team. When presented in media wellbeing looks fun, vibrant, and excessively happy - but wellbeing is NOT happiness.

The sad side of the pursuit for happiness

Well intentioned leaders are set up to fail if they constantly chase happiness for their staff. Why - because if leaders “aim to please” all the time they will eventually have to upset someone, or fail to meet ever increasing expectations - the exact opposite of what they set out to do! Think about it, when leaders prioritise short term staff happiness those necessary (but potentially uncomfortable) developmental feedback conversations are avoided (to avoid hurt feelings). In the long term this can lead to dissatisfied customers and performance management procedures for oblivious staff members. Take another example, granting vacation request after vacation request over the Christmas period has its limits - somebody has to watch the shop and inevitably be denied their request (great for some, but not for all). Finally, bringing the team cake from Monday to Thursday will only lead to disappointment on Friday if it’s not provided. All in all, the constant efforts of leaders to make their staff happy can lead to underperformance, strained relationships and jealousy, and stressed managers.

Avoiding the wellbeing-happiness trap

So if wellbeing isn’t all about happiness, what is it? I believe that the best definition of high wellbeing is good physical and psychological (emotional and cognitive) health. For me, the key word here the is health. Depending on which research you rely on, humans are said to have 4 or 6 basic emotions (anger, fear, surprise, disgust, happiness and sadness). Note that happiness is one among many emotions, and healthy humans experience all of these, not just happiness. Put another way, you can be well without being happy all the time, and if you’re happy all the time you’re probably not well.

Wellbeing and true happiness: The long game with ups and downs

Taking this point further, the things that bring us true happiness often require temporary discomfort. For example, the feelings of sadness we experience over failing to qualify for a sales bonus can spur us on and be consequently displaced by feelings of deep satisfaction the following month if we set a new company wide sales record gained through sheer determination.

Workplace Wellbeing is not happiness - The upshot for leaders

Once leaders realise that happiness is a central (but not the only) component of wellbeing they can train their attention to what truly matters - encouraging conditions for good physical and psychological health. Regarding psychological health, leaders should replace a desire to build happiness with a desire to build clarity within their teams. Through extreme clarity leaders can connect their staff with The Motivational Trifecta - the bedrock of long term happiness, psychological health and wellbeing at work:

  • Control - Team members clearly understand the boundaries of flexibility in which they work, how they do their work and, how they can contribute to change that happens at work.
  • Growth - Team members clearly understand where and how it’s safe to take risks and fail. They are provided with clear pathways to specialise, or to up-skill into higher roles.
  • Meaning - Team members clearly see how their work contributes to the overall mission and work of their team and organisation as a whole.

HR Business Direction can assist you to build a wellbeing culture that works!


Alistair Kerr, MPsychOrg; PostGradDip Psych; BPsych

Organisaitonal Development Strategist | Psychologist


07 3890 2066


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