Happiness and Wellbeing at Work

Putting research into practice

Employee Engagement

While cash bonuses, a raise in salary, and other forms of external motivators, indeed, can stimulate employee productivity and morale in the short-term, more than ever, that $25 Starbucks gift card will only get an organization so far in maintaining a happy workforce. Studies (including a recent Gallup survey of employees) confirm that, in the longer term, the key to employee happiness and well-being in the workplace lies in the intrinsic motivators. Intrinsic motivators include not only the positive reinforcement of good employee behavior and a general feeling by the employee that his organization values him by displays of gratitude—including social recognition by the employee’s peer group—but also the employee sensing that he is part of a so-called learning organization. First coined by management theorist, Peter Senge, a learning organization is an organization who is dedicated to the learning of its members and continuous transformation. The learning organization, as part of a commitment to corporate social responsibility (CSR), ethically invests in training and development so its employees can pursue personal mastery, expertise seeking, and supports employee growth both personally and professionally, which have all been tied to employee well-being, job engagement, and improved workforce morale—in a word: happiness.

Such underscores the importance and the reach of an organization’s training and development program. In fact, while the training and development field invokes at a minimum a do no harm principle—a primary ethi­cal obligation to avoid doing injury to employees of the organization—an emerging theme in training and development surrounds how training programs should also align with organizational ethics and the notion of social justice. Whereby, organiza­tions take the initiative to assess and assume responsibility for the organization’s effects on its employees’ well-being, as well as, the environment and the larger social context. By placing a CSR lens onto employee well-being and happiness, the organization focus becomes more balanced in that not only do they uphold the economic aspects of organizational performance, but also the organization’s treatment of the employee, specifically.

By considering employee well-being and happiness as part of the underlying contexts, assumptions, and frameworks for socially responsible training and development programs, we are better able to question that status quo and “give voice” to aspects of injustices or oppressions that may exist within the workplace that affects employee morale and well-being. For example, are only certain types of employees (e.g. white males) given opportunities for Leadership Development training? Likewise, we can also glean the norms of the day that may be hiding biases within organizational text (e.g., training and policy manuals) using a critical hermeneutics and semiotics approach. So, for example, a male employee in the 1955 travel industry who may have had career plans as a flight attendant may have been subsequently unhappy and discouraged upon reading the training manual, “How to be a Flight Stewardess [italics added]”; that is, we quickly pick up on the not-so-veiled idea that, in the 1950s and 1960s, it was understood flight attendants were female and females were flight attendants [and not pilots]. Today, think the Hooters™ training manual. Such consideration has been described as the dialectic of liberation and domination, and the understanding the roles of power and powerlessness.

Learning organizations embrace training programs that not only avoid direct and immediate harm, but also proactively weigh the decisions, future consequences, and impacts of how said training and development may subtly affect employees, too; such examples include aspects of work–life balance, ethical mentoring, and the organization’s succession planning strategy. In sum, within a context of training and development, we can evaluate how organizational conduct not only affects but, in fact, is also, directly linked to an employee’s physical and mental well-being towards the goal of maintaining a happy workforce.

David M. Kopp is Professor of Human Resource Development and Associate Dean of the School of Education, Barry University, Florida, USA. He is the author of Famous and (Infamous) Workplace and Community Training.

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