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The Hard Facts About Happiness and Productivity


How important is it to you to be happy? Most of us spend about a third of our lives at work, a third sleeping, and a third doing “personal life.” It’s kind of an odd way to look at life; parsed into fractions. But let’s explore the parsed part of life that is work.

“The single greatest advantage in the modern economy is a happy and engaged workforce.” Don’t agree? Former Harvard researcher Shawn Anchor’s work on the topic is compelling and may make you think twice if you are skeptical about the idea that happiness has a place in the modern workplace. “A decade of research in the business world proves that happiness raises nearly every business and educational outcome: raising sales by 37 percent, productivity by 31 percent, and accuracy on tasks by 19 percent, as well as a myriad of health and quality-of-life improvements.” For federal employees, sales data may not translate, so it can be helpful to think instead about measurable mission outcomes.

Regardless of how we might interpret the business world findings to the government domain, the bottom line is a happy and engaged workforce is critical to success. Yet as a federal leader, the idea of being responsible for your employee’s happiness may seem daunting, frivolous, and frankly it’s not written into your position description. Further, if you agree with Anchor’s decade of research on the topic, happiness is a choice. All this said, what if you were offered free tools that increased the possibility of your employees being happy and therefore more productive? Would you at least try out the tools? Here are two:

1. Acknowledgement. Acknowledgement, in the form of expressing gratitude, is scientifically proven to increase happiness. Even if you don’t want to try this out at work, it’s worth taking five minutes to watch this video called The Science of Happiness and try using this tool with your family and friends. Or share it with your teams and see how simply introducing this idea might change the dynamic in your organization from one of blame to one of acknowledgement.

2. Assess Happiness Factors. Years ago, we worked with a client who was told by her manager to “make your team happy.” She didn’t like this task at all, and her manager was clear in his direction that he wanted her team to be happy. They were miserable and productivity was suffering as a result. As part of our approach we created an assessment tool to use with the team to measure six factors identified in the January-February 2012 Harvard Business Review edition on the value of happiness. We conducted an initial assessment and a follow-up assessment four months later—after working with the team to identify and implement actions to improve in the six areas. After four months the factors we measured improved by 10 percent to 30 percent across the board. The factors, derived from the HBR article, included employees’ perceptions about the extent to which:

  • They were given decision-making discretion to solve problems on their own
  • Information about what was happening in the organization was shared in a timely manner
  • A culture of civility was fostered
  • Individuals received timely feedback about their performance
  • Individuals received timely feedback about the organization’s performance
  • They felt they had the training and skills necessary to do their jobs

As with many things, it’s important to recognize there is no guaranteed prescription for happiness. What contributes to happiness for one may be different for another, and what works in one organization may not be the same in another. Whatever the differences may be, the underlying commonalities are we spend roughly a third of our lives at work, a happier and more engaged workforce is more productive, and as a leader it’s worth investing time and energy into how to support an environment in which employees and the organization thrive. Why? Because your mission matters to your stakeholders, and they are counting on you and your teams to deliver results.

(Image via racorn/

Sarah Agan is a regular contributor to Excellence in Government. She has spent the past 17 years working with clients across the federal government with a focus on helping individuals and organizations thrive.

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