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Happiness – The Perk that Never Gets Old

Companies often look to perks as a way of increasing staff engagement, but effective, long-lasting change comes from cultivating a work environment that satisfies people’s core psychological needs.

Happiness – The Perk that Never Gets Old

Changing the corporate landscape

Wellbeing is a hot topic in an era where home working has been mandatory, and people are exhausted. Dubbed by economists as “The Great Resignation” or “The Great Reshuffle” 2021 was the year more than 4 million people left their jobs in a single month in the US with various global surveys showing that 38-41% of workers were thinking about quitting their jobs.

The pandemic forced jobs to change, but workers changed too. They’ve reflected on what’s important to them and how they were treated when they felt at their most vulnerable. They ask questions like “what matters most for my health and wellbeing?” and “what is my workplace saying to me about whose health and wellbeing counts?”

People are landing on care, concern, and community. They want to feel they belong – both to the organizations they have risked their health and lives for and to the family and friends they have missed spending time with through the pandemic.

In such extreme conditions, pressure is on organizations to re-think how they encourage people to continue contributing. And the pressure comes at a time when organizations are operating under difficult circumstances with limited time and budget. This means organizations must move smartly to engage and re-engage the colleagues who are feeling disheartened and disenfranchised.

This is where positive psychology and the science of human wellbeing can help.

When we adapt to perks they stop bringing happiness**

There is a long history in the workplace of incentivizing people to go the extra mile with compensation, bonus schemes, benefits packages, office redesigns and free food. As motivators, these perks are what psychologists call “extrinsic motivators” and they do a very good job of activating dopamine circuits in our brain which give us a little “buzz” when we do something well and make our future a better place.

But the buzz we get from extrinsic motivators is short-lived. Psychologists sometimes refer to this as “hedonic adaptation”. We see it in the loss of shininess of different perks, whether it’s a less formal dress code, snacks in the break room, or a gym membership.      

The pool table sits in the office and only gets used a few times a week, and then maybe a few times a month, and then never. Just as we adapt to adverse situations, we also adapt to good things as well. The pool table isn’t as fun after it’s been in the office for some time. It takes more effort to achieve the same amount of ‘fun.’

For a company, this adaptation is costly in the long run.

This is why we focus on the things we don’t adapt to. We don’t tire of the benefits of greater emotional intelligence. We don’t get bored of better-quality relationships with colleagues. These are benefits that keep building and growing over time, leading to a better employee experience.

Three feelings for self-sustaining happiness**

Psychologists Deci and Ryan have long researched and tested the difference between extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation, between individuals and across cultures. Self-determination theory describes how three feelings furnish us with a natural motivation for learning, growing and developing. 

  • feeling a closeness and psychological connectedness to others (relatedness); 

  • feeling able to master challenges and influence circumstances (competency); 

  • feeling our behaviour is connected to, rather than disconnected from, our interests, preferences and desires (autonomy).

When positive moods flow from a sense of relatedness, competency and autonomy, we are happy and energized. This process is different to deriving short-term happiness attached to the status and money that comes from extrinsic motivators. It is more sustaining and self-perpetuating, because it feels great to have the internal motivation and support networks to face whatever life throws at us. We manage one set back and we build the internal knowledge that we did ride the wave of change, however disoriented and hopeless we felt along the way.

Cultivating happiness we don’t adapt to

Restorative and regenerative environments find ways to celebrate and uplift how connected we feel, how competent we feel and how self-directed we feel. In some organizations this looks like investing in spending time together—any activity that creates an opportunity for people to connect person to person, not just colleague to colleague.

For other companies, the focus is on strengths-based recruitment and high autonomy environments, so colleagues have more opportunities to experience a sense of flow at work. Some of our clients have re-designed their feedback processes so people are more self-directed in when, how, and in what direction they develop their skills and knowledge.

At Friday Pulse we have built Deci and Ryan’s three feelings for natural motivation into the design:

  • We make it safe for people to come together to talk about their emotional experience by deepening and humanizing the conversations that typically happen in the workplace
  • We celebrate the small achievements individuals and teams make from week to week, building that sense of “I can” and “we can”
  • We provide the tools for people to reflect and act on how they’re feeling, nurturing the self-awareness required to be self-directed at work

Little-by-little we create the opportunity for people to feel good through satisfaction of the core psychological needs we now know are needed for enduring happiness and wellbeing.

Building resilience over time**

An investment in cultivating belonging, competency and autonomy is not only about unleashing people’s motivation and potential. It is an investment in future resilience.

During the onset of COVID in March of 2020, companies around the world saw a massive drop in engagement and wellbeing scores. However, Friday Pulse clients fared significantly better than their peers. They reported:

  • SHOCK ABSORPTION - An 18% drop in their weekly happiness scores compared to a 30% drop in white collar workers
  • BOUNCE BACK - A return to 90% of pre-pandemic happiness levels in 3 weeks compared to 13 weeks
  • SUSTAINED HAPPINESS - End of year employee happiness levels were 20% higher with 47 weeks at (or above) 90% of their pre-pandemic levels, compared to 20 weeks for peers

It’s important to note here that there are always ups and downs—there will never be a pure constant ‘happy’. But slow and steady 1% and 2% gains in happiness makes a significant difference to how people think and what they do. Improvements in happiness help us take in more information and invest energy in new things, build relationships and heal the effects of negative emotions. We are better problem solvers and more effective copers. Therefore, happy employees report 55% lower stress levels. They are also six times more likely to innovate and be creative.

The result is a company where team leaders and members share responsibility for the culture and team happiness. Unlike trendy perks like a snack bar, these are real perks that have a real effect on a company.