What makes people truly happy at work?

What makes people truly happy at work?

People's natural state is happy—we have to remove the obstacles that prevent us from being happy!

You are missing the point if you believe pay, perks, incentives, soft furnishings, football tables, groovy colours, and toys make shiny, happy people.

All those perks have a place, and fair pay is absolutely key, but they are all distractions from the work.

The question is, what makes people happy AT work while working and in the process we call work?

You need to stop for a moment and look at people engaged in their work, that is, people who experience their work as worthwhile. 

My father had a saying, “Make your work your hobby, and every day is a holiday.” Just dwell on that saying for a moment.

People do hobbies because they are passionate about the topic, activity, or subject matter. They collaborate with other like-minded people and readily share their knowledge and expertise. They engage with other people use their knowledge, skill, passion, and energy and do it joyfully. 

Another group to consider is volunteers who participate and contribute for no pay. The ones who return repeatedly feel that their contribution is appreciated, and their reward is the feeling of being valued.

The Sunday Times Best Places to Work survey used twenty-six questions from WorkL’s employee engagement survey.

I simplify happiness at work to four fundamental principles: participation, contribution, value and appreciation.


Q: Are the conditions at your workplace designed so that people readily, enthusiastically and voluntarily participate fully in the activities of the business? 

Readily - no physical, emotional or environmental obstacles stop people from participating.

Enthusiastically - people are interested in their work and want to participate.

Voluntarily - when there is work to be done, people step up and take action, not waiting to be asked.


Q: Are the conditions in your business designed so that everybody gets to make their best contribution?

My favourite interview question is, “What will you contribute to the business?” I never employ people based on their competence to do a job; I select people based on their contribution to the business.

An individual's contribution is unique. It is what they bring to work with them every day, and it is a vital component of the business's overall culture.


Q: Does your business provide the conditions for people to contribute value, and does it value people’s contributions?

As a contributor, I will always prefer to contribute to something I value: a cause, a vision, or a community. So, Do your employees value your business vision and objectives? Do they value your business's community?

And I also want to know if the entity I am contributing towards values my contribution.


Q: Do the conditions exist in your business so people know they are appreciated for their contribution?

Showing appreciation is more than saying thank you; that is a start. Genuine appreciation is when you thank someone for their contribution and let them know the difference their contribution made to you and the business. It is personal.

If an organisation can answer each of these questions positively, then its employees will likely feel that work is a worthwhile experience, and when this is true, people are happy.


True happiness at work is the result of action that we feel has been worthwhile. Even when work is hard, challenging, and even a little scary when it is complete, we feel a sense of achievement and worthiness, and then we feel happy.

Happiness at work without action is transitory, brief and often worthless. Real happiness comes from worthwhile effort.

To quote Lord Mark Price, the founder of WorkL and ex-Managing Director of Waitrose, “There is nothing worse than doing a job, working hard, and nobody notices.”

Twentieth-century leaders thought they were giving some privilege to people who worked for them, that people were privileged to have a job. The true privilege is to be a leader of an organisation where you create the conditions for people to come and participate in your vision and contribute to it. You then have the privilege of appreciating them for their contribution. A leader who is not humbled by their employees' contributions values their ego too highly.

There is a lot of talk about how the different generations feel at work, which is good because different generations react to the conditions at work differently. But labelling people and grouping different types of people based on age, gender, sexuality, ability, religion, race, neurodiversity or heritage masks the fact that we are all individuals. Every person is an independently intelligent, complex adaptive system, and everybody has a unique perception of the world they live in.

The possibility that a human organisation creates is to bring together people who share a specific set of beliefs, principles, concerns or a purpose that can be expressed as a vision. But we must remember that every person who joins an organisation will also have beliefs, principles, concerns and a purpose that does not fit into the organisation.

Leaders, managers, and team members must understand the importance of external motivations, even when they cannot or should not involve them in the organisation. They need to understand Rubbish Theory.

Rubbish Theory

It’s called Rubbish Theory because that is what people generally think of issues that they are not interested in. But consider how you feel when someone rubishes or dismisses something that is important to you!

When HR pundits talk about “bringing your whole self to work”, they rarely mean it literally because why would the business care about you volunteering at a butterfly farm or the fact that you help an elderly neighbour? These are irrelevant to the business. But they are not irrelevant to the person who cares about those issues.

As a business, you don’t have to address the passions of your employees, but you must acknowledge their existence and allow for their presence. In practice, that means that an important issue to an employee is not ridiculed or undermined. The topic is respected, and their interest in it is respected.

And this is a two-way street. Just because I have a passion or concern outside of the work environment does not mean I should expect my colleagues to accept or approve of it. I must not force it on them as much as they must not ridicule or disrespect it.

If you want happy people at work, you must create the conditions for them to participate, contribute, be valued and appreciated and also acknowledge and respect them as a whole person.

Finally, you only want people who genuinely want to work for you. So be clear about what working for you has to offer and about your conditions of satisfaction. Don’t try to please everyone; please the people who want to participate in your vision, who have something to contribute, and who value what you and your business are all about.

Remember, people's natural state is happy - so when you encounter unhappy people, look for the obstacles that are thwarting their happiness!



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