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How To Be Happy at Work, According to the Expert Who (Literally) Wrote the Book on It

An interview with Author of "How To Be Happy at Work" and Senior Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania

If you feel unfulfilled by your work—or worse yet, burnt out, overworked or overly stressed—you’re not alone. According to recent Gallup data, 66 percent of workers in the U.S. are not engaged in their work, or are actively disengaged (Gallup’s framing—that the number of engaged workers is at its highest level since the firm began collecting data on the subject in 2000—should give us pause). The problem takes on even worse proportions at the global level: 85 percent of workers around the globe are actively disengaged or not engaged at work.

BRINK’s deputy editor, Mikhail Klimentov, spoke to Annie McKee, author of How To Be Happy at Work: The Power of Purpose, Hope, and Friendship and senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, about what employees and managers can do to replace the daily grind with a sense of fulfillment.

Mikhail Klimentov: In your book, you write about the business case for happiness at work. What’s the rationale behind creating a business case? Why not just say, “Of course, happiness at work is intuitively good, people should be happy at work”?

Annie McKee: Unfortunately, many of us have internalized a lot of myths about the meaning of work and about how it should feel to be at work. It’s encapsulated in sayings like, “It’s just a job,” or, “You should be thankful you have a job.”

What social scientists and researchers have discovered since is that we’ve got to break through those myths in order to focus on what’s most important at work: the people. People are the most important thing when it comes to getting results. So we have to create a business case for things like emotional intelligence and happiness at work because there is a deeply embedded knee-jerk reaction that those things don’t really matter, that it’s the bottom line that matters, that it’s efficiency that matters, that it’s processes and systems and technology that matter. All of these things do matter. People just happen to matter more.

Mr. Klimentov: What is the business case for happiness at work?

Ms. McKee: There are a number of really interesting studies that have been going on over the last, I’d say, 10 or 15 years in positive psychology, neuroscience and management. I’ve also done my own research observing companies, looking at what people believe they need in order to be most effective in the workplace. One of those things is happiness, including meaningful work, friendships in the workplace, and a bright, optimistic future for them and their families.

Some folks have looked directly at the impact of happiness on productivity and retention and have found—beyond a shadow of a doubt—that when we are happy, we are more successful. Their work has shown that when we are positive, we are 31 percent more productive and have 23 percent fewer health-related effects from stress. In fact, some research shows that happiness comes before success, not after.

The second thing that we know is the impact of emotions on our ability to think and act. The reality is that when we are fearful, angry, frustrated or stressed to the max, our brains don’t work as well. We’re facing great challenges in our workplaces, and any kind of chronic negativity that interferes with our ability to be smart is a real problem. However, when we are enthusiastic, optimistic, hopeful or excited about what we’re doing, and even when we are appropriately stressed—not overstressed but appropriately stressed—we think more clearly, we take in more information, we’re able to process that information faster, and we make better decisions.

Mr. Klimentov: What concrete recommendations would you make to somebody who feels unhappy at work?

Ms. McKee: The first thing you can do if you sense that something might not be great at work, that you might not be as fulfilled as you could or should be, is to take a look inward and ask yourself, “Is this how I want to live? Am I able to live my values and have a positive impact? Am I hopeful about my future? Do I have good colleagues or friends at work?”

If the answer to any or all those questions is no, then you want to dig a little deeper and ask what’s gone wrong. It’s really hard to do, but ask yourself, “What part do I play in my own unhappiness?” It’s really easy to point at that bad boss or toxic culture, and those things exist, they really do, but we’ve got to also take responsibility for what we can take care of.

You should look to see if you’ve gotten trapped either doing what you think you should do all the time, rather than what you know is the right thing to do. Perhaps your ambition has gotten out of control and you’re grabbing brass ring after brass ring and not enjoying the journey. Maybe, frankly, you’re just overworked. All of this takes a tremendous amount of self-awareness, emotional intelligence, reflection and mindfulness.

Stress is at epidemic proportions in our workplaces, and we are seeing diminishing returns in our attempts to demand ever more from people.

Mr. Klimentov: A lot of workers might reflect on what the problems are and say, “Well, I just don’t have enough power to make the changes that would make me happy.” What would you tell somebody who is unhappy, but who doesn’t feel that they can change their situation?

Ms. McKee: There are some things we don’t have much control over. For example, if you’ve got a really bad boss, chances are you’re not going to change that person. Or, if you’re in an organization that has a toxic culture, chances are, you’re not going to change the whole culture.

However, one thing that we can always control is our attitude and our perception. So, if you used to be a glass-half-full kind of person, and you find yourself turning into a glass half empty, more pessimistic person, take some concrete actions to banish the pessimism from your life.

Secondly, try to focus on what’s right with you. Even if nobody’s telling you what a great job you’re doing, spend some time every single day reflecting on what’s right with you, what’s right with the world. Write it down if you have to. Think back to times when you’ve been really successful, and remember that you have it in you to do that again.

If it’s really bad, you may indeed have to think about leaving. No job is worth sacrificing your health or your life. But not everyone can leave a job when we’re in this kind of situation. So, what we have to do is to look around and try to find meaning in our day-to-day activities.

Mr. Klimentov: You write about the idea of reframing jobs and careers as a calling. Intuitively, that makes a lot of sense, but a skeptic might read that and say, “There’s no way I can reframe my bottom-tier job as my calling.” What would you tell someone who thinks this?

Ms. McKee: First, a caveat. If working conditions, physical or psychological, are abysmal, nothing’s going to help. Working conditions matter and humane working conditions are fundamental to our ongoing effectiveness and happiness in the workplace.

That said, most of us work in fairly normal working conditions that may not feel that great, but are not inhumane. So it’s worth asking: Even if the actual job as a whole is not totally fulfilling, does your organization do something that matters to you? Do they provide a service or goods that you find exciting or meaningful? One can derive satisfaction from that fact.

Most of us also respond really well to mentoring, supporting and helping other people. When we do those kinds of things at work, we feel that even if the job isn’t fantastic, even if we know we need to get another job, at least day-to-day we’re making a difference for someone or something that matters to us.

Mr. Klimentov: While conducting your research, did you notice any contrasts between age cohorts?

Ms. McKee: The trends I witnessed applied cleanly across the board, which was surprising to me at first. Because when I was doing this research, there was a lot of buzz about how different millennials are. And since then, there has been a lot more research that shows that, no, millennials aren’t that much more different than other people in the workplace.

The one thing I noticed is that millennials and Generation Z are more likely to speak up when work isn’t fulfilling, when they’re not happy, or when they’re not feeling as if they’re contributing. But the fact of the matter is that everybody wants the same thing. It’s just that members of some generations are more likely to speak out.

Mr. Klimentov: A lot of the recommendations you offer in your book are very personal. They implore the reader to independently make a change to their emotional state or attitude. But you’ve also clearly identified some trends that apply across the workplace. Beyond personal solutions, what role can broader, policy-based solutions play?

Ms. McKee: It’s really important that organizations take the notion of engagement and happiness seriously and start thinking about how they can create workplaces that foster a more engaged attitude toward work and more happiness. And there are things that we can do on a policy level to help achieve this. One of them is to try to get hold of the workload issue. Too many of us are working too much, and even if your job is fulfilling and you love it, if you’re doing it too much, year after year, you’re going to burn out.

I worry that policymakers and HR departments and senior leadership have been crossing their fingers and hoping that nobody notices. But, in my estimation, stress is at epidemic proportions in our workplaces, and we are seeing diminishing returns in our attempts to demand ever more from people. Workers cannot handle the stress and overwork epidemics on their own.

Mr. Klimentov: Do you have any recommendations for steps managers can take to make their subordinates feel happier at work?

Ms. McKee: If you’re a manager, take a look around. Look at the climate and the culture in your organization, but more specifically around yourself. What tone do you set? Is it demanding and authoritative? Do people feel intimidated around you? If they do, that’s not a good thing. You are not helping them be their best, and you’re not helping yourself either. Hyper-competition among people in the workplace is not healthy. That’s another myth we need to retire. It does not help us or our organizations to pit our employees against one another.

So if you’re in a management position, you can do a lot to create a resonant microculture around you. First, address your own emotional intelligence and your own happiness and your own tendencies to get caught in certain traps. Secondly, do an audit of the climate and the culture that you create, and see what you can do to improve it.

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