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Unhappy employees? Don’t gloss it over

June 16, 2020
By Jack Burton

(aydinynr/Getty Images)

While you’re always looking for the perfect recipe for building a productive, growth-oriented workforce, chances are you’re probably missing a key ingredient: Happiness.

New research shows that not only is workplace happiness a necessary factor in creating healthy company cultures, but it’s oft-overlooked, to a concerning degree.

Rumeet Billan and Gillian Mandich, of the organization Happy & Resilient, collected data from more than 1,150 respondents between January and February 2020 as part of their Canadian Happiness at Work Study.

It found not only that there was a lack of employees who viewed their workplaces as a source of happiness, but there was also a dearth of resources and policies from employers to foster it.


“I think organizations need to know that there’s an issue in the workplace where many employees are not experiencing joy, contentment and positive well-being,” Billan said. “Here’s the thing: we spend the majority of our waking hours at work. I don’t know about you, but I would like to enjoy my time at work and the people that I interact with, but also experience joy and contentment and positive well-being.”

High levels of stress

The study also calls attention to the widespread prevalence of high-stress workplaces, revealing that 83 per cent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed to feeling stressed out at least once a week. In terms of the factors instilling frequent stress in workers, the findings show that not even one-half of respondents felt a sense of belonging at work (48.6 per cent); appreciated at their workplace (43.6 per cent); or that their workload was manageable (45.7 per cent).

The current state of workplace stress may appear troublesome, but the consequences are even more demanding of attention. While “a lot of respondents indicated that (stress) impacted productivity,” Billan also reveals that “over a third of respondents think about leaving their job or organization either every single day or at least a few times a week.”

Low-cost, and free solutions

These findings reframe happiness as more than just an intangible: through factors such as engagement and retention, a lack of happiness in the workplace affects your company’s bottom line. And while the Happiness at Work Study may have revealed some worrisome trends on this front, it’s worth noting that these high-impact issues can be solved with low-cost — or even free — solutions.

“The No. 1 thing that came out of our data about what organizations can do? It’s to listen,” Billan advised.

“It was so interesting: as I was looking through the results, I saw how much of (these issues) — appreciation, respect, and communication — have to do with listening. I was kind of taken aback, because this doesn’t cost organizations a thing.”

This call for organizations to listen more to the needs of their workforces comes from the study’s conclusions regarding a number of issues regarding workplace communications. Two-thirds of respondents don’t feel like they receive direct and clear information related to their performance, while three-quarters did not feel that there was adequate communication within their organization.

Psychological safety

The concept of “psychological safety” was brought up by Billan as a key element that both indicates and influences healthy communication in professional organizations, which she defines as “the degree to which employees feel comfortable and safe to share opinions, thoughts and ideas without fear of negative consequences.”

Though psychological safety may bring much-needed change to the communication issues weighing down employee well-being, it’s also important that these changes begin from the top of the corporate structure.

The need for this change to come from CEOs and key decision-makers is due to the survey’s findings that the majority of respondents “didn’t feel psychologically safe with their board of directors, as well as their superiors or managers.”

It’s only when a sense of comfort is built around employees sharing their own needs and opinions — especially with the knowledge that they will be listened to rather than punished — that a healthy employee culture can begin to grow.

While improving security, communication and engagement all drive positive change in workplace happiness, what’s just as important as developing these strategies is the act of actually implementing them.

“I think on a policy program initiative level, it’s important to ensure that there’s an effective positive well-being strategy,” said Billan. “But it’s also just as important to walk the talk, right?”

Walking the talk

What exactly does it look like for a company to “walk the talk” when it comes to happiness in their workforce?

Billan cited an organization that, in an effort to increase its support for workers and their well-being, “upped what they offered their employees for psychologists from $300 to $3,000.

“That, to me,” she said, “is a fantastic example of walking the talk — saying ‘we believe in (workplace happiness) and we’re going to support it.’”

Warning signs

Billan also highlights a number of indicators that your company may be harbouring low-joy workplaces. Aside from previously-explored factors such as poor communication and stress, other signs that your work culture may need improvement is overall turnover and retention rates, in addition to how employees respond to workload.

“If you notice people aren’t taking their breaks, working through lunch or working long hours, I think that’s a warning sign,” she said.

Another tool to help evaluate workplace happiness is for those in charge to not only look at who or how many amongst their workforce is showing up, but how they are showing up: “I think again absenteeism is important, but also ‘presenteeism’: when employees are at work, are they actually engaged?”

The time for happiness as a key focus of workplace policy decisions may be overdue, but that doesn’t mean it’s too late to be integrating these priorities into company structure — in fact, it’s an opportunity to be part of the new future of employee well-being.

“I do know that (happiness) is becoming a priority that CEOs are beginning to talk about it,” said Billan. “There’s a trend to focus on things that promote well-being and wellness as important, and I think that will continue.”

Jack Burton is a freelance writer in Toronto.

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