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10 Scientifically Proven Ways to Boost Workplace Happiness

More than 80 percent of American employees like their jobs. What are their bosses doing right? Greatist looks at 10 key factors — both psychological and social — that science suggests make for the best work environments.
10 Scientifically Proven Ways to Boost Workplace Happiness
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87.5 percent of Americans are satisfied with their jobs. That’s a pretty impressive number, even considering the 12.5 percent of people who aren’t thrilled by the Monday through Friday slog. So what determines whether an office is pleasant or prison-like, and can a few plants, a gym break, and a smiley boss really make or break employee enthusiasm?

Photo by Mykalee McGowan 

Seeking Satisfaction — The Need-to-Know

Job satisfaction research can be traced to the early 20th century. Faced with an increasingly rapid pace of production, assembly line workers were more tired and prone to making errors than ever before. So managers began seeking ways to boost employee mood and morale. Happier employees, the thinking went, produce better work, stave off burnout for longer, and keep colleagues competitive.

For decades organizational psychologists have searched for what exactly makes work most enjoyable. There’s still no magic formula for job satisfaction, since people have their own preferences for what they need and want from a job environment. Some would rather get ’er done and leave, while others seek a greater sense of community ((Five-factor model of personality and job satisfaction: a meta-analysis. Judge, T.A., Heller, D., Mount, M.K. Department of Management, Warrington College of Business, University
of Florida, Gainesville. Journal of Applied Psychology. 2002 Jun;87(3):530-41.)). In general, it’s important that our work proves personally meaningful, says organizational psychologist William A. Kahn.

Work It — Your Action Plan

Still, there are some qualities that almost all happy workplaces share. For those seeking a new gig or just looking to spice up their current workday, here are 10 factors that research suggests have the biggest influence on job satisfaction.

Motivation and Dedication

1. Get engaged. Who can forget that sales rep whose genuine enthusiasm for the product he pitched led you to bust out your wallet? Employees who are actively involved, dedicated, and personally invested in a company produce far better work than those who feel disconnected and alienated, says Kahn. Performance evaluation and recognition programs, benefits packages, education, and social support help foster engagement. (This includes office break rooms and happy hours.)

2. Face the challenge. We reach our max motivation when we engage in activities that are difficult but not insurmountable, like pulling together a presentation after doing months of research [1]. Sure, it’s hard, but the final product’s gonna’ rock. Kahn notes that having time to reflect on completed projects is also key.

3. Back off! Beware of micromanaging supervisors and authoritarian bosses who don’t give workers much choice on the job. They tend to lower everyone's morale, well-being, and motivation to put in extra effort. On the other hand, bosses who make employees feel competent and cared for (“You seem stressed, Gina. What can we do to lighten your load?”) boost satisfaction, productivity, and company loyalty even further.

Daily Schedule

4. Get flexy. Less rigid work schedules help retain team members — especially folks who prefer to hold down a job and have adequate time to spend with family. Workers who can produce on their own clocks and outside the office also tend to be more efficient and call in sick less often than their office-bound counterparts. (Plus people whose day jobs don’t jibe well with their home lives are three times as likely to quit.)

5. Keep it movin’. Employees who fill their morning routines, lunch breaks, or happy hours with physical activity tend to be more engaged and energetic on the job than those who stay glued to their chairs [2]. Getting a move on throughout the workday improves overall cardiovascular health, provides a healthy distraction from stressful office situations, and can even enhance workers’ capacity to tolerate physiological stress [3]. Company gym membership, anyone?

6. Go places. In 2011, long commute times made almost half of Americans less satisfied with their destinations. And approximately five million workers called in sick last year because they couldn’t take the stress of time spent in transit. While bosses may not be able to influence traffic, some can provide commuter’s compensation.

Office Setup

7. Pipe down, please! Loud noise raises our levels of epinephrine (a hormone involved in our body's fight-or-flight response), even if we don’t feel bothered by it [4]. Too-chatty coworkers, keyboard clatter, copy machines, phones, outside disruptions and other problematic sounds also make us more inclined to sit in rigid positions. Smart strategies to cut noise include carpeting, lining walls with sound-absorbent material, soaking up street sounds with thick curtains, and white noise machines. Headphones make for the quickest fix.

8. Put some players in the atmosphere. Keeping the temperature between 65 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit appears to be the best bet. A chilly office can literally make us perceive our workspace as less friendly [5]. Some greenery might make us more comfy too (though there's some evidence plants can decrease productivity.)

9. Find your sweet spot. Make sure to use adjustable chairs and desks, which shift where our weight is stacked and keeps joints from getting overloaded. Or try standing at the desk for a cumulative two hours throughout the workday -- employees who do this report feeling more energetic and less depleted by office closing time. And fellas, take note: Furniture has a bigger impact on guys’ productivity than on gals’.

10. Improve the space between. Office setups that encourage face-to-face communication (like open-plan bull pen types) boost employee satisfaction. Cubicles with high walls have the worst influence on employee’s smile rates, since they increase isolation. Organizational psychologist Jennifer Bunk advocates for more non-virtual “Hello's!”

In general, workplaces that make us feel included, valued, cared for, and competent bring out our best efforts. Adequate lighting, comfortable office décor, a quiet environment, breathable air, and empowering team dynamics are just some of the numerous ways managers can improve their underlings’ workplace experiences.

And while happiness alone may not cause productivity, it’s a pretty solid start. Happier workers stick around longer, bring more energy and enthusiasm to their tasks, and help maintain organizational morale.

How happy does your job make you? What are some of the biggest stressors you encounter in your workplace and how do you get past them?

Works Cited +

  1. The importance of challenge for the enjoyment of intrinsically motivated, goal-directed activities. Abuhamdeh, S., Csikszentmihalyi, M. Istanbul Sehir University, Istanbul, Turkey. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 2012 March;38(3):317-30.
  2. Job burnout and depression: unraveling their temporal relationship and considering the role of physical activity. Toekr, S., Biron, M. Faculty of Management, Tel Aviv University, Israel. Journal of Applied Psychology. 2012 May;97(3):699-710.
  3. Links between physical fitness and cardiovascular reactivity and recovery to psychological stressors: A meta-analysis. Forcier, K., Stroud, L.R., Papandonatos, G.D., et al. Centers for Behavioral and Preventitive Medicine, Brown Medical School, Providence, RI. Health Psychology. 2006 November;25(6):723-39.
  4. Stress and open-office noise. Evans, G.W., Johnson, D. Department of Design and Environmental Analysis, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. Journal of Applied Psychology. 2000 Oct;85(5):779-83.
  5. The substitutability of physical and social warmth in every day life. Bargh, J.A., Shalev, I. Department of Psychology, Yale University, New Haven, CT. Emotion, 2012 Feb;12(1):154-62.

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