APA Center for Organizational Excellence: Good Company

Resources for Employers

Good Company Blog

Looking for that perfect gift for a colleague or just want to stuff your own stocking with some knowledge? These books from our suggested reading lists are a great way to spread holiday cheer, or strengthen your own efforts to promote employee well-being and organizational performance.

Selections include new releases, best-of-class reference texts and essential resources for business executives, consultants, HR and wellness professionals and psychologists who work with organizations. Titles and descriptions come from both the APA Center for Organizational Excellence’s Amazon Associates Store and APA Books.

Suggested Readings: Managing Employees Who Telecommute or Work Remotely Flexibility in the how, when and where employees work is not just a perk for working parents – it’s smart business strategy. However, having a policy that allows employees to work remotely doesn’t guarantee success. Supervisors need to learn the skills necessary to manage employees virtually — which is where this list of suggested readings comes in handy. Suggested Readings: Workplace Bullying Workplace bullying can have serious repercussions for employees and the organization alike. By promoting a psychologically healthy workplace and taking steps to prevent and address negative workplace behaviors, employers can create a work environment where employees and the organization thrive. This list of suggested readings can help. Suggested Readings: Employee Wellness and Health Promotion Health and wellness initiatives maximize the physical and mental health of employees through the prevention, assessment and treatment of potential health risks and problems and by encouraging and supporting healthy lifestyle and behavior choices. This selection of books focuses on employee wellness and health promotion, with volumes that explore theory, implementation and best practices. Suggested Readings: Work-Life and Flexibility Conflict between work and other life responsibilities can diminish the quality of both work and home life for employees, which in turn can affect organizational outcomes such as productivity, absenteeism and turnover. This selection of books explores the work-life interface and flexible work arrangements, with volumes that explore theory, implementation and best practices. Suggested Readings: Training and Development By investing in employee growth and development, organizations can improve the quality of their employees’ work experience and realize positive gains by enhancing organizational effectiveness and improving work quality, as well as by helping attract and retain top-quality employees. This selection of books includes volumes that explore research, practical applications and approaches to developing effective training programs. Suggested Readings: Employee Recognition By acknowledging employee efforts and making them feel valued and appreciated, organizations can increase employee satisfaction, morale, and self-esteem. Additionally, the organization itself may benefit from greater employee engagement and productivity, lower turnover and the ability to attract and retain top quality employees. This selection of books explores various recognition topics with volumes that cover motivation, incentives and more. Suggested Readings: Leadership Whether designing organizational structures and processes that drive performance, promoting a positive work environment that facilitates meaningful work or developing a resilient workforce that can compete in an evolving marketplace, effective leadership is critical to a psychologically healthy workplace. This selection of books focuses on leadership with volumes that explore theory, research and practice. Suggested Readings: Executive Coaching Executive coaches play a variety of roles in organizations, including helping top executives perform at their best, developing new leaders to move into higher roles, acting as a sounding board for senior managers and working with key employees at risk of derailing. This selection of books includes volumes that explore behavior and performance, as well as the history of coaching and approaches that lead to success. Suggested Readings: Personnel Assessment and Selection An organization’s personnel selection process should be based on evidence-based practices that are grounded in research and theory. Special issues to consider include test validity, avoiding adverse impact and ensuring your organization is using legally sound methods to select and promote employees. This collection of books explores the development and validation of selection procedures, job analysis, interviewing and more. Suggested Readings: Diversity and Inclusion at Work Diversity is more than just a workplace program or policy. Ingrained in an organization’s culture, valuing diversity and promoting inclusion have broad strategic implications for innovation, well-being, performance and success. This selection of books focuses on diversity and inclusion, with volumes that explore culture, team work, communications and management. Suggested Readings: Workplace Stress By investing in employee health and stress prevention, organizations can benefit from greater productivity and reductions in healthcare costs, absenteeism and accident/injury rates. This selection of books explores workplace stress, with volumes that focus on causes, risk factors and tips for preventing job burnout. Suggested Readings: Workplace Safety Promoting employee safety can reduce accidents and injuries, create a more loyal workforce, enhance the company’s public image, decrease insurance rates and improve employee effectiveness. This list includes volumes that explore environmental hazards, safety behaviors, legal and compliance issues, safety management, ergonomics, employee training and how to promote and support a safety culture. Suggested Readings: Corporate Social Responsibility Through socially responsible actions, leaders can improve the functioning of their organizations and improve performance by doing what’s right. This selection of books explores corporate social responsibility, with volumes that focus on strategy, employee engagement in social causes and sustainable business practices and case examples from world-renowned organizations. For additional selections, check out more APA Books on Industrial and Organizational Psychology and the online store from the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology. Here’s to happy holidays and a healthy new year! The content provided above is for informational purposes only. The inclusion of any product, service, vendor or organization does not imply endorsement, recommendation or approval by the American Psychological Association, the APA Center for Organizational Excellence or the Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program. Amazon and the Amazon logo are trademarks of Amazon.com, Inc. or its affiliates. Photo Credit: ©iStockphoto.com/urfinguss « Good Company Newsletter Email questions or comments to: goodcompany@apa.org ©2016 American Psychological Association About Us Contact Share

Helping others makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, but did you know it is also good for your mental and physical health? Emotions and behaviors that are focused on other people are associated with better well-being, health, and longevity. Yes, being altruistic could help you live longer!

APA has a committee of staff dedicated to improving the health and well-being of employees. This November, APA’s Health and Wellness Committee challenged APA staff to focus on acts of kindness for one week. Each participant committed to one intentional act of kindness per day. Through small or big acts, the focus was on helping others and creating a better workplace for all of us.

Participants were involved in a community email thread through which people shared ideas, struggles and outcomes. Some people held the door for another person or hung signs reminding people they are valued; others gave up a seat on the commuter train or bought lunch for a coworker. The effects of the challenge could be seen throughout the organization as staff members found ways to brighten the days of their colleagues and improve morale in the workplace.

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The group took the challenge one step further and spent two hours volunteering at a nearby men’s homeless shelter during the workday. Tasks included folding laundry, making beds, and serving lunch with a smile. APA realizes giving back to the community affects all levels of the organization and the community in a positive way, and that's why employees are given 3.75 hours of paid volunteer leave each year. This lets employees take a half day of work time to give back to the community.

One participant shared this about her experience at the shelter: “In the middle of a hectic APA workday, it was profoundly moving to volunteer some time tending to these gentlemen’s most basic needs by making beds and serving lunch. It was a reminder that caring for our community doesn’t always require more than empty hands and a full heart.”


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Gratitude is another “warm and fuzzy” word that actually has evidence-based positive effects on well-being. Research shows people who practice gratitude consistently have stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure, and report experiencing more joy and pleasure and less loneliness and isolation.

APA’s November Healthy Hour (think happy hour, but with healthy snacks and games instead of alcohol) featured a Gratitude Gathering.

Participants wrote out things they were thankful for on cardstock in the shapes of fruits and vegetables, and added them to the wall’s cornucopia of thankfulness. Another activity was a Gratitude Grab, through which employees took a challenge out of an envelope and reported back later about their experience. Examples of challenges included: go for a walk at work and write down all the good things you see; tell a coworker three things you like about them; eliminate gossip and negative talk from your vocabulary today. This focus on gratitude seemed to have a positive effect on morale, particularly given the anxiety and uncertainty existing for many post-election.

In this way, it’s important to think about what your staff truly need at a specific moment in time when deciding which programs to implement. Though these activities focusing on altruism and gratitude may seem small, they are far-reaching. By affecting the well-being of an employee at your organization, you can also impact their families and communities, and who knows where the ripple will stop.

Editor's note: This post is part of an ongoing series that shares some of the initiatives, events and activities that support employee health and well-being at the American Psychological Association. We don't only talk about how businesses and organizations can be psychologically healthy. It's a model we've also adopted for ourselves.

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Tara Davis is director of the Staff Initiatives Office, which is part of APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence.

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Bashing annual employee surveys has definitely come into fashion. All too often, headlines recommend that companies scrap their annual engagement or satisfaction surveys and instead put boots on the ground and experience work from the employee perspective. Get out there, talk to people and you will get a sense of what is going on. That was the focus of a recent article on Forbes by Liz Ryan, suggesting that we “Ditch the Employee Engagement Survey -- Here Are Ten Better Ways to Listen.

The article misses the mark in its criticism of employee surveys. Perhaps it could be construed as an indictment of the way surveys are being used in some organizations today. After all, modern surveying capabilities allow anyone, regardless of survey design expertise, to utilize the tool, and because data collection is easy and efficient, it often replaces more beneficial, yet time-consuming, ways of collecting robust information from across the organization.

However, a quarterly or annual survey, when designed correctly, still serves an important function in organizations. It permits the organization to assess the current state of the workforce, whether in terms of engagement, job satisfaction, turnover intentions, or some other constructs. When coupled with modern analytics and visualization capabilities, organizations can effectively identify changes over time, specific issues that need to be addressed, and problem areas within the organization.

Anecdotes are not surveys

These benefits cannot be realized using any of the tactical approaches Ryan recommends in her article. Many of the approaches she mentions (e.g., being available for group conversations, quick one-on-one conversations) could be used to add more focused discussion based on survey results, but they will not replace the quality of information obtained in a survey of the workforce.

The reason for this is that surveys provide a broad collection of information across a wide variety of individuals within the organization. Data are collected and analyzed in a systematic way, and therefore, the results provide a more inclusive cross-section of the organization than any other tactical approach.

Meetings and town hall forums, suggestion boxes, and lunch room conversations may produce a host of anecdotal data, which can be highly fruitful and produce ideas worth considering and vetting for possible implementation across the organization. However, such data are typically non-representative and increase our likelihood of succumbing to one of many cognitive biases. If your primary (or only) way of assessing the state of the workforce is through the use of anecdotal data, you will likely walk away with a biased, unrepresentative view of your organization.

Instead, a more systematic approach would be as follows:

  1. Survey employees about their attitudes using broad, validated metrics and in a way to optimizes response rate and willingness to respond candidly.
  2. Use multifaceted approaches (e.g., town hall meetings, online suggestion boxes, lunch room conversations), more boots on the ground approaches to discuss survey results, get a sense of individual employee concerns and ideas for enhancing the organization’s overall effectiveness.
  3. Synthesize and evaluate the possible options for moving the organization forward that were generated during Step 2. If multiple options are being considered, perhaps poll employees to get a sense of their preferences for the options in the list.
  4. Begin implementation of initiatives, finding ways, when possible to get employees involved.
  5. Assess the quality of implementation in the next round of surveys and begin the process all over again.

Such an approach recognizes that organizational effectiveness cannot be enhanced with a “one and done” process. It requires a systematic, recurring process that relies on data being collected in multiple ways and integrated to optimize the likelihood of successful strategies and initiatives.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/penmachine/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Customer Service Week emphasizes the importance of customer service and celebrates the people who provide customer service daily. The celebratory week is an effective way for organizations to improve morale, motivation and teamwork; raise awareness of the importance of customer service; and thank internal departments for their support. Customer Service Week is held during the first full week of October each year.

There are simple things any company can implement to recognize their employees who provide customer service both internally and externally. Here is a look at how the American Psychological Association celebrated Customer Service Week this year.

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At APA we hosted a number of activities, both fun and educational, during Customer Service Week. This year our theme was Celebrating Everyday Heroes. 

The main event was an Open House of Heroes. Employees were invited to dress as their favorite superhero and participate in competitions to win prizes.

APA’s executive managers welcomed employees to the event and operated the Wheel of Customer Service activity. Employees spun a wheel and were asked to answer a corresponding customer service-related question such as, “Can you describe a time when you went above and beyond for a customer?” Employees also had the opportunity to recognize their colleagues for being a customer service hero and give them a superhero alias. These notes of appreciation were then posted in the lunchroom for everyone to see.

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Another popular activity was the employee spotlight, titled Unsung Heroes. Each day a different employee was featured, sharing a time when they were a customer service hero.

For a causal learning opportunity, APA’s executive director of membership recruitment and engagement gave a lunch-time talk on how employees can provide excellent customer service and how the membership office can help other departments do the same. One person from each major office attended and reported back to their group.

All week long employees were encouraged to wear their “Everyday Hero” wrist band, given out to all employees. Whenever a member of the Customer Service Week committee caught someone wearing their band, they received a raffle ticket. At the end of the week prizes were given to employees who engaged in the week and reminded others that they are everyday heroes.

Even implementing one activity can go a long way to appreciate customer service providers and improve customer service.

Editor's note: This post is part of an ongoing series that shares some of the initiatives, events and activities that support employee health and well-being at the American Psychological Association. We don't only talk about how businesses and organizations can be psychologically healthy. It's a model we've also adopted ourselves.

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Katelynn Wiggins is assistant director of the Staff Initiatives Office, which is part of APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence.

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The American Psychological Association recently released a report discussing the potential upsides and downsides of having conversations about politics – and specifically the upcoming U.S. Presidential election – in the workplace. Not surprisingly, 27 percent of workers reported at least one negative outcome as a result of political discussions in the workplace during this election season. Granted, some workers also felt more connected to their co-workers (24 percent) or had a more positive view of their co-workers (23 percent) as a result of political discussions.

I will not attempt to summarize all of the results here, though I recommend people to take a look at the full report as there were some differences that emerged as a function of sex and age. Perhaps most importantly (and surprisingly to some folks), this is not a Republican versus Democrat or a Liberal versus Conservative issue, as there were hardly any differences between the various political affiliation or philosophical classifications.

Instead, the positive and negative consequences of discussing sensitive – and sometimes divisive – issues at work can happen to anyone regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum.

But politics is not the sole source of potential divisiveness in the workplace, as different individuals and groups have lined up to voice their support or displeasure about NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s and other players' actions during the playing of the National Anthem, to argue their perspective on gender-neutral restrooms, or various other controversial issues that emerge over the course of any given year.

I could list one example after another, but in truth, they would all have at least one core commonality: they tend to evoke strong opinions on both sides of the issue. If these events become the topic of conversation at work, those conversations could degrade the quality of the work environment if not managed properly.

While the majority of workers in the APA poll reported that co-workers were generally respectful of those with differing political views (60 percent), that means a large minority of workers were either neutral or disagreed with this sentiment. In other words, there could be very real consequences for an organization, especially in terms of productivity and employee relations.

Should organizations actively promote or discourage conversations surrounding sensitive issues?

Idealistically, one could argue that an organization’s culture might be such a supportive environment that workers could constructively share their opinions on topics like these without ridicule or negative consequences. While this may be an accurate descriptor of some organizations, I would be surprised to learn that it was accurate of more than a small minority of them (especially, given that most organizations develop sub-cultures that vary to a fairly large extent).

On the other hand, without deliberate consideration of ways to address the occurrence of these conversations (by either promoting or dissuading them), managers and organizational leaders may be increasing the likelihood they will occur--and possibly occurring to the detriment of productivity. Therefore, it may be in the organization’s best interest if it takes a deliberate stand--not on the issue itself, but on its position regarding the discussion of sensitive and potentially divisive topics in the workplace.

Editor's note: This post is part of an ongoing series that shares some of the initiatives, events and activities that support employee health and well-being at the American Psychological Association. We don't only talk about how businesses and organizations can be psychologically healthy. It's a model we've also adopted ourselves.

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Everyone likes to be thanked, but did you know that employees who received recognition are more likely to report higher levels of satisfaction, motivation and work effort? APA's 2014 Employee Recognition Survey linked effective recognition practices to positive outcomes for both employees and organizations.

At APA we offer a wide reaching awards and recognition program to allow supervisors and colleagues to recognize employees in formal and informal ways. Other organizations can use APA’s programs as inspiration to start or expand their own awards and recognition program.

APA’s biggest recognition event is our annual Recognition Day each spring. The event is held in a conference room on site and is made up of different activities including information about our programs, recognition themed games, goody and ducky grams you can send to your colleagues. Receiving a ducky gram has become a coveted gift at APA. Each year employees can send each other a different themed rubber duck. Many employees have their desks lined with all different rubber ducks. At this year’s event we ran out of ducky grams in less than an hour. Once the ducks were gone, staff were able to send their colleagues sweet or salty snacks along with a note of gratitude.

Our informal recognition program includes e-cards and thank you notes. At any time, employees can send their colleagues e-cards and print cards to thank them for their help on a project, congratulate them on a brilliant idea or even let them know they enjoy being on the same team.

APA has a formal awards program that allows any employee to nominate their colleague for a Service All Star or Core Values Award at any time. Employees can also nominate a colleague for the most prestigious title, the Raymond D. Fowler Award. Nominations are reviewed by past winners of the Raymond D. Fowler Award.

A Service All Star is someone who goes above and beyond their normal job duties to benefit a coworker, department or the association as a whole. Up to 12 employees can receive the Service All Star Award each year. APA has nine core values: decency and fairness, teamwork, flexibility and resilience, individual differences, employee development, collaborative decision making, open communication, health and well-being and organizational self-knowledge. One award is given for each core value each year to employees that embody the essence of the values.

There are a number of options for recognition at APA – both formal and informal. As an important part of overall organizational wellness, we encourage employees and managers to participate whenever possible. Maybe you’ll find a duck on your desk next!

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Katelynn Wiggins is assistant director of the Staff Initiatives Office, which is part of APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence.

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Almost everybody wants to take a vacation at some point during the year, but a recent poll suggests that vacation time might not be taken as often as it once was for U.S. workers. This should come as no surprise, given that the average number of vacation days employees take per year has declined from 20.3 in 2000 to 16.2 in 2015. While a myriad of reasons may be to blame, two likely causes would seem to be technology and overwork.

Technology

Technology, especially the reliance on electronic forms of communication and document sharing, has steadily increased over the past 15 years. Although there are a variety of benefits, the reliance on electronic communication has also resulted in about 44 percent of people reporting they check work messages at least once per day when on vacation, with a small minority of workers (11 percent) reporting they check work messages hourly when on vacation.

There is also no doubt that technological advances have made U.S. workers more productive, allowing fewer workers to perform more activities today than would have been possible 30 or 40 years ago. However, increased efficiency from technological advances is not without its downsides. Often, this increased efficiency means there are fewer people to whom work can shift when someone goes on vacation. Add to that the emphasis on increased efficiency and doing more with less that occurs during a recession, and many organizations have been left without the slack resources that would permit workers the flexibility they need to effectively take vacation.

Overwork

The “do more with less” attitude has permeated the workplace. APA’s Stress in America survey highlights the impact of work on people’s stress levels. Two-thirds of U.S. workers reported that stress is a somewhat or significant source of stress, second only to money. Furthermore, the latest results from the Work and Well-Being Survey indicated that a burdensome workload and long work hours were cited as two of the top five sources of work stress.

Previous research has shown that the psychological detachment that corresponds with various types of breaks from work (with vacations being one type of break) offer significant benefits for stress, health and well-being. However, these benefits are often short-lived. If workers are on vacation but still investing their resources into work activities, one would have to wonder whether such a break would possess the requisite psychological detachment to be of benefit.

We Need More Than Encouragement to Get the Most Out of Vacation

With all of these factors working against employees being able to effectively take vacations (and benefit from them), it is not sufficient for managers to simply encourage employees to take some time off. The issue is much broader than that; the system has to be designed to allow employees to regularly detach from their work.

Yet, in the era of doing more with less, most systems are not designed to provide the appropriate detachment necessary to support ongoing health and well-being. While manager support and encouragement is important, the following should also be addressed:

  • Provide deliberate attention to the issue of temporary responsibility shifts. This may include using technology to aid workers in coordinating vacations across the unit, so that work unit staffing can be appropriately managed.
  • Provide cross-training so workers can actually shift their work. When only one employee is capable of performing a given task in the unit, and said task if required on a regular basis, that employee can seldom ever fully detach from work. But when multiple employees are capable of performing that task, it becomes easier to manage around one worker’s absence. Cross-training can be an effective way to develop important competencies in multiple employees, which can be a benefit when employees take vacation (not to mention offering a myriad of other benefits).
  • Ensure vacations avoid peak periods. Avoid scheduled absences that would put undue pressure on other employees. Many employers have blackout periods and require sufficient notice before an employee is permitted to take a vacation. This allows them to ensure that those employees who will be in the office are not unduly burdened while the vacationing employee is absent. However, many organizations lack such structure, and the vacation process can result in significant increased stress for employees still in the office.
  • Employees should plan appropriately to ensure a relaxing vacation. Employees should prepare to shift their responsibilities when they leave. Appropriate planning needs to occur so those who will be overseeing job responsibilities while a given employee is on vacation have the needed information to do so.
  • Make time off a regular occurrence, not a once-a-year perk. Because the benefits of vacation are short-lived, time off from work should be encouraged regularly. It does not have to be weeklong vacations, but taking one or two days off on a regular basis can be beneficial for worker health and well-being. Furthermore, if organizations were to proactively build such an emphasis into their cultures, they could create systems and processes that are easier to manage than when employees scramble to cram their vacations into a shorter period of time.

If organizations and employees would begin thinking more strategically and systemically about vacations and other forms of time off, worker well-being and organizational productivity would both benefit. Such win-win scenarios are the hallmark of a psychologically healthy workplace, and the opportunity to detach and recharge is a necessary component of such a workplace.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/doctorow/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Editor's note: This is the first post in an ongoing series that shares some of the initiatives, events and activities that support employee health and well-being at the American Psychological Association. We don't only talk about how businesses and organizations can be psychologically healthy. It's a model we've also adopted ourselves.

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You’ve heard of happy hour, but what about a healthy hour? At the American Psychological Association employees have the chance each month to gather at Healthy Hour for a break from their work and participate in physical and mental competitions, play sports and dance games on a Wii and socialize with colleagues.

Organized by APA’s Staff Initiatives Office, the monthly event energizes employees, increases healthy behaviors, improves morale and creates camaraderie among the staff.

Competitions range from hula hooping to memory games and plank holding to hopping across the room on one foot. Physical activity isn’t the only offering: employees can watch funny TV shows and snack on healthy foods. Winners of the games are rewarded with fun prizes, but let’s face it—with healthy breaks we are all winners.

Encouraging employees to get active pays off: Research has shown that employees who spend 2.5 hours a week being physically active were more satisfied with the quantity and quality of their work, reported increased work ability and took less sick time than employees who did not engage in physical activity.

At a recent Healthy Hour, APA employee Heather Dade takes a break during her workday to play a game, meet up with coworkers and snack on fresh-cut vegetables, fruits and dip. “Participating in Healthy Hour always rejuvenates me,” she says. “I love the games and other activities offered, the healthy snacks, and getting a chance to chat with co-workers that I don’t get to see regularly.

“I get my energy level up playing ping-pong or one of the cool activities that is offered there and come back to my office ready to get to work.”

These types of healthy breaks are good for the employee and also benefit the employer.

People who take short breaks are more productive and able to focus on a task for a prolonged amount of time than people who do not, according to a 2011 study published in Cognition. While this may seem counterintuitive, breaks leave employees feeling more refreshed, recharged and able to complete their next task.

Towhanna Boston never misses a healthy hour. “I attend our healthy hours because it forces me to feel better mentally, physically and emotionally. It is a true refresher in between our daily APA routines.”

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Tara Davis is director of the Staff Initiatives Office, which is part of APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence.

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I was perusing the internet recently, and I came across a piece called “Happiness is the New ROI.” The article equates happiness to a sense of engagement and being a part of a company that is a great place to work. The problem here is that happiness and engagement are not the same thing.

Unfortunately, both of these terms seem to be popular buzzwords in 2016 and have been for several years now. They have been pirated to promote a variety of nonsensical, pseudo-scientific self-help schemes – usually for the purposes of selling books, consulting services or life coaching. A search for the term “happiness” on Amazon will result in more than 92,000 hits on its list of books, and a search for “work engagement” (to avoid any books about getting married) will result in more than 14,000 hits.

Yet, the two constructs are fundamentally different from a scientific standpoint. Dr. Dan Haybron, a philosopher who has been instrumental in moving the study of happiness forward, would most succinctly define it as “emotional well-being” (for a more sophisticated explanation, you might also check out the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Engagement, on the other hand, would be best defined as "...a positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind that is characterized by vigor, dedication, and absorption." It is the persistent experience of a high level of energy and identification with one’s work. It drives us to marshal the mental, physical and emotional resources needed toward the fulfilment of some goal (or set of goals).

While work engagement can contribute to one’s overall happiness, it is not happiness itself. 

Happiness is a much broader conceptualization of well-being, one that is affected by a lot more than just the workplace. In fact, research would also suggest that, at most, engagement is one element that influences happiness (along with others, such as pleasure and meaning). To state the situation more simply, engagement is insufficient by itself to produce happiness, and insufficient research exists to determine even whether engagement is a necessary to create happiness (though few researchers would deny that it is helpful).

In addition, the pursuit of happiness as a goal in and of itself is fraught with challenges. People are fundamentally flawed when it comes to knowing what will make them happy, and sometimes the pursuit of happiness itself can be counterproductive. In some ways, this is probably because people have a sense of when they are happy, but they are not necessarily very good at figuring out why they are happy.

Yet, we seem to live in a buzzword society. Self-help gurus and consulting firms generate an extraordinary number of sales with promises to create happy and engaged workers. They use faulty surveys and gimmicky, scientifically unvalidated tactics (like happiness projects) as their tool kit. Yet, for all their efforts and all the sales of books and consulting services, I have yet to read any headlines indicating that happiness and engagement have skyrocketed.

There is no universal solution for how to be happy, just as there is no universal solution for how to increase engagement among workers. 

However, what we can conclude based on research is that happiness is much broader than work engagement and defines a sense of well-being that extends far beyond the workplace. Instead of trying to focus on making workers happy or engaged, organizations should consider focusing on what they can do to make the organization a better place to work, asking questions such as:

  • How can we reduce or eliminate structures, practices, and processes that keep people from being productive?
  • How can we improve the ability of workers to flexibly respond to the various demands they face, both at work and at home?
  • How do we show people they are valued so they will remain with the organization?
  • How can we improve the management and leadership that exists throughout the organization?
  • How can we identify what is most important to our employees and take steps to address those needs?

I suspect that if organizations ask these questions, rather than focusing on how they can make their workers happy, they will find much greater long-term success. As a goal, increasing the happiness and engagement of workers may be too broad and convoluted (not to mention paternalistic). However, identifying and promoting resources to support productivity, flexibility, retention and other key outcomes is a much more attainable goal.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/8lettersuk/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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A recent article by Mark Murphy on the Forbes website cautioned against the use of items on employee surveys that assess employee satisfaction. He argued that satisfaction is synonymous with contentment, and that contentment is antithetical to employees giving 100 percent at work. Rather, he argued that employees must be inspired “to give [their] best effort,” which is not achieved when they are simply content (or satisfied) with their job. Unfortunately, his perspective may be only partially accurate.

Previous research would suggest that he is correct about the difference between satisfaction and engagement. Warr and Inceoglu (2012) found that the smaller the difference between the desired and actual features of a job (in terms of a supportive environment, ethical principles, and other factors), the more satisfied they were.

This, of course, comes as a surprise to absolutely no one. However, the more interesting result was that when employees perceived their jobs to lack some of those key features (in other words, features of the job were less than desired), they actually experienced more engagement – likely because they were motivated to pursue those desired job features. In other words, employees were motivated to make their jobs fit better with their preferences.

Overall, the results point toward two phenomena that make perfect sense from a motivational standpoint:

  1. Workers can be satisfied with their actual levels of specific job features, but when they desire greater levels of those features, they experience more engagement.
  2. When their job possesses more of those key features than desired, satisfaction suffers.

Engagement is a motivational experience; we experience it when we are pursuing a desired goal or outcome. Satisfaction, on the other hand, suggests that what we have is sufficient; it is a state of contentment.

To use an example, consider the issue of control. Some people are very satisfied with the amount of control they have over their work. Their primary motivation is simply to maintain what they have. However, others may be moderately satisfied with the control they currently possess, but would prefer to have more of it. These employees may, therefore, experience engagement when they have the opportunity to utilize or pursue greater levels of control over their work.

Neither set of employees is necessarily poor-performing. However, engaged workers will be more likely to value and take advantage of new opportunities to develop themselves in their job. So, in some ways, Murphy is right. Being highly satisfied is antithetical to the experience of engagement.

If you want people to strive for more, they should not be overly satisfied with their job as it is now; they have to want something more (i.e., a goal). If employees would change nothing about their current job (everything about the job is exactly how they want it), they may be satisfied, but they are not likely going to be motivated to pursue something more. That motivation comes from some perceived disconnect between how their job is and how they would prefer their job to be.

This is an underlying principle of what researchers would call self-regulation, which is nothing but a fancy way of saying that people have goals (which are outcomes they value), and they are motivated to achieve them. It implies that what we want in the future is somehow different than what we have now, and we are motivated when we see opportunities to close the gap between our present experience and desired future. However, our desire to close this gap can necessitate a variety of behaviors.

And this is where Murphy’s argument requires some caveats. While engagement is a motivational experience stemming from a desire to achieve a valued goal (i.e., to give our best effort, as Murphy says), if our best effort fail to produce results (i.e., some level of contentment), then we may cease to give our best efforts. Instead, we may choose to withdraw our efforts, either becoming disengaged or perhaps leaving the organization.

And that creates the conundrum. Sure, you want to avoid a scenario in which workers are fully satisfied with the status quo, unmotivated to change anything. Being too satisfied can be detrimental to motivation. However, if workers see too many discrepancies between what they value and their current condition (in other words, they have too many valued goals they are trying to pursue at any point in time), you could be creating a scenario that is also detrimental to motivation.

Instead, it would seem as though the optimal approach would be to create an environment that promotes a moderate level of satisfaction, but also one that promotes the motivation to push for something more. In that way, you could benefit from both satisfied and engaged workers.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/clement127 / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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