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How to create happier workplaces

Published by: LifeWorks,

Have you noticed how some people just seem to be happier than others, even though they have many of the same problems and challenges? Although the meaning of happiness varies from person to person and from culture to culture, all human beings have the capacity to be happy. According to American psychologist Martin Seligman, happiness is part of our overall well-being, but happiness alone doesn’t enable us to flourish. It does not allow us to build deep, lasting relationships with others, feel pleasure, or contribute meaningfully to our communities and to the world. In fact, his belief is that happiness (or “positive emotion”) is just one of five elements that, together, allow us to build a fulfilling life. The other four are engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment.

Below is an article adapted from Forbes.

By Mireia Las Heras, professor of Managing People in Organizations and research director of the International Center for Work and Family (ICWF) at IESE Business School

Searching for happiness is a key driver for most human beings. Yet many of us are still not happy. Many times, our workplaces – where, after all, we spend a large chunk of our time – have a big role to play in this. Through my research looking at work-life balance and organizing academic conferences on how that intersects with the pursuit of happiness, it seems organizations have a lot to do to enable (and not hinder) people´s happiness.

Creating workplaces that allow people to balance their personal and professional lives is good for a variety of reasons. It’s responding to reality: people have family responsibilities, whether caring for young children or elderly parents, and giving them the flexibility they need to carry out those responsibilities helps them feel more in control of their lives, more positive and more energized. In short, happier. And research shows that this translates into greater commitment, engagement and motivation at work. It’s also shown to attract and retain talent.

Yet, as vital as balance is for today’s workers, achieving it has gotten much harder. In our “always on” society of constant email and social media notifications, everyone expects an instant response. For all of technology’s advantages, it is also one of the chief culprits in keeping us from fully engaging with our non-work pursuits and responsibilities as much as we’d like or need.

While we can’t simply eliminate all demands and pressures, we can at least foster organizational cultures that favor work-life balance, and encourage happier employees. Below are some research-backed insights into how to do this.

The importance of role models: balance starts at the top

Company leaders have a crucial role to play in promoting work-life balance practices. If they are promoting balance, this will trickle down to employees.

When exploring how best to promote work-life balance, I and my fellow co-authors specifically looked at the under-researched work context of Chile. Chile is classified as a hierarchical market economy, so it seemed a suitable context for us to study how well-being in work and home domains trickles down from supervisors to subordinates. While other studies have explored this dynamic at the peer-to-peer level, we found that those at the top of the organizational hierarchy — supervisors – played a special role in making it cascade throughout the organization.

As employees see their supervisor maintaining (as much as possible) a work-life balance, they come to view balance in a positive light and seek to emulate those behaviors for themselves. Leaders who are able to disconnect outside of work make it easier for others to do so, too.

Supervisor behavior also has an important crossover effect. Just as supervisors who engaged more at work saw how their subordinates performed better at work; likewise, those supervisors who engaged more at home had subordinates who enjoyed more satisfaction at home. (I call this the

“crossover” effect to differentiate it from “spillover,” which refers to when the actions in one domain – e.g. work – might have unintended consequences on the other – e.g. home.)

It is worth remembering that this effect can be for good or ill. When supervisors don’t have good work-life balance themselves, their subordinates will also perceive this and presume that home engagements are not organizational priorities. Supervisor behavior regarding family balance might have a much bigger impact than any written policy, so leaders should strive to set good examples.

Given this finding, it’s worth asking: how well do your company’s leaders demonstrate their own commitment to work-life balance? Are they as enthusiastic about personal or family engagements as they are about work ones?

Training and assessments

Yet, as important as role-modeling is, it helps if your organization already has the right policies in place so that both leader and employee behavior is validating and reinforcing, rather than fighting against, their corporate culture.

In this, HR plays a key role. Recommended actions are:

  • Running workshops with supervisors to train, educate and increase their awareness of family-supportive behavior.
  • Assessing employees’ needs for being able to balance their work requirements with their personal circumstances.
  • Providing self-assessment tools for employees to monitor their own performance in work and home domains.
  • Using behavioral modeling techniques, such as role-playing, so all levels of an organization can practice the behaviors needed.

Personalized arrangements

Another HR policy that can boost the effectiveness of other efforts to promote work-life balance is to allow “idiosyncratic deals” or “i-deals,” which are personalized arrangements specific to the work-life needs and preferences of the individual employee. I-deals generally boost employee satisfaction and reduce turnover intentions.

Again, supervisors who enjoy i-deals are more likely to extend them to their teams, and subordinates are more likely to take them up if they see their supervisors using them positively.

This again drives home the point that leaders must prioritize work-life balance not only for their own happiness, but for the good of those they lead and the organization as a whole.

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