New research tells what makes people happy at work

happy at work
Bianca Healey


written on April 12, 2017

Happiness, and the pursuit of it, is a modern construct. Much like the modern conception of marriage as a union based on romantic love, we often forget that these modern ideals – centred around personal fulfilment – simply didn’t exist only a few generations ago.

What are the implications for the way we manage the workforce? A new study takes a wide lens look at global factors that lead to happiness at work.

To begin, it’s worth noting that there are wider psychological and cultural factors at play. Also, experts are still arguing over what happiness even is and how to measure it.

Social scientists have long been fascinated by the ways that national cultures influence the optimistic or pessimistic outlook of its citizens.

For example, some have suggested that French culture is uniquely geared to encourage a pessimistic outlook by its citizens. Despite ranking near the same level on the “index of human development” (material well-being) as Belgium and Denmark, the nation is 20 per cent lower than its peers on the “happiness scale”.

The flip side of this is the United States, which has long been recognised as the nation with the most ‘optimistic’ people. A study on global perspectives found that Americans are more likely to respond strongly in the affirmative when asked if they’re having “a particularly good day” than their peers in other advanced nations like Germany, the UK, Spain, France, and Japan.

Where normally there’s a general inverse relationship between GDP per capita and daily optimism, the U.S. stands out as the exception among advanced economies. It’s also a gap that’s held despite the anxieties about terrorism and the Global Financial Crisis that have shaped the past decade.

Why? Many suggest that while generally Western societies are geared towards individualism as a means of achieving satisfaction, in America it’s an essential, deeply ingrained mentality connected to national identity.

So, which jobs make you the happiest?

The recently published 2017 World Happiness Report looks closely at the relationship between work and happiness – and comes up with some fascinating results.

Drawing from Gallup World Poll findings, the report surveyed people across 11 broad job types, covering areas including business owner, office worker, or manager, and working in farming, construction, mining, or transport.

The key finding is that white collar workers are far happier in their jobs than blue collar workers.

People around the world who categorise themselves as a manager, an executive, an official, or a professional worker evaluate the quality of their lives at a little over 6 out of 10.

On the other hand, people working across a number of labor-intensive industries such as construction, mining, manufacturing, transport, farming, fishing, and forestry evaluate their lives around 4.5 out of 10 on average.

Even among professional workers, the study found that senior professionals (manager, executive, official) evaluate their lives significantly higher and report more positive affective experiences than the self-reported happiness of office workers (clerical, sales, or service), even when allowing for income and other variations.

What about work makes people happy?

Further to this, employees in countries across North and South America, Europe, as well as Australia and New Zealand are generally more “satisfied” with their job, with Austria taking the top spot with 95 per cent of respondents reporting being satisfied with their jobs.

The reasons why are what we’ve come to expect.

Apart from high pay correlating with a sense of satisfaction about their jobs and lives more generally, a work-life balance is the next strongest predictor of employee happiness. This is followed by job variety and the need to learn new things, the level of individual autonomy enjoyed, job security and social capital (as measured through the support one receives from fellow workers).

Engagement; it’s complicated

Where things get tricky is the peculiar discrepancy between employee happiness and employee engagement (you can read about this in more detail in Tim Baker’s article today).

The survey’s findings suggest that there is more to employee happiness than simply a level of job satisfaction – even among countries that have relatively high job satisfaction numbers, “active” employee engagement is typically less than 20 per cent. The number drops to 10 per cent in Western Europe, and much less still in East Asia.

Satisfaction is part of the picture, sure, but truly hitting employee happiness involves getting individuals to be positively absorbed by their work and fully committed to advancing the organisation’s interests.


While many of these findings are already clear to most HR professionals, the key takeaway is to recognise that, at work, emotions actually do matter. Happiness at work is important – and more than anything else it’s what leads employees to work harder and smarter.

The next step is recognising what’s needed to make people happier in their job – and how to get there.

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One thought on “New research tells what makes people happy at work

  1. I totally agree with your views on the subject, for a happy employee is more likely to give more at work in terms of productivity. On the second question on how to achieve such high levels of employee satisfaction and happiness, I believe the key is the reward system employed by the organisation. It is crucial that organisations find the right mix between extrinsic and intrinsic rewards as this will positively impact employee satisfaction, happiness and retention in the long-run.

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