Are your efforts to build happy work cultures working against you?


World-renowned happiness expert Dr Laurie Santos, and other experts, on common misconceptions around building happy work cultures, and methods that actually work.

The first thing Yale University researcher Dr Laurie Santos wants us to know about nurturing happiness in the workplace is that, right now, the odds are stacked against us. And it’s not because the work we’re doing is fundamentally unenjoyable.

Rather, it’s due to the insidious effects of burnout, which Santos says have reached epidemic proportions of late.

“Research shows that burnout, as it is scientifically defined, can colour our feelings about a job that we might have really adored before,” says Santos.

“Scientists think of burnout as involving three parts: emotional exhaustion, interpersonal exhaustion and a sense of ineffectiveness at work. Those three factors could affect anyone’s enjoyment of work.”

Resolving burnout should come first, she says. Only then can the real work of helping employees feel happy at work begin.

The happiness expert

Santos has been studying the art of happiness for years, focusing not only on work-related burnout – which has already been exhaustively researched and reported on – but also on contentment in general. 

Her expertise stretches back to 2018, when she devised a Yale course to help struggling students feel better and cope with university. 

That course, Psychology and the Good Life, has since become one of the most popular courses in Yale’s 320-year history. It’s free for anyone to sign up to.

“I really didn’t like what I was seeing on campus. Students I worked with were reporting depression and anxiety, and trying to fast-forward to the next school break. It wasn’t what I remembered from college.”

After the course came her podcast The Happiness Lab, which allowed Santos to broaden her research and apply learnings to different areas of people’s lives.  

While many organisations have been taking workplace happiness seriously for years now, it wasn’t until recently that action was taken to improve the happiness state of organisations, with Chief Happiness Officers popping up in Silicon Valley and beyond; books about finding joy and happiness at work, and in life more broadly, topping best-seller lists; and targeted research helping employers to build a business case around an investment in happier cultures.

Headshot of Dr Laurie Santos
Image: Dr Laurie Santos, Yale University

One such report, recently published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, persuasively suggested that happy employees achieve more than unhappy ones.

In a sense, the findings were a no-brainer. But the study is compelling because the participants all worked in similar roles, with similar salaries and conditions. The study looked into the happiness state of nearly one million Americans, all serving in the Army.

The researchers – Paul Lester, Ed Diener and Martin Seligman, who is known as the ‘father of positive psychology’ – measured the self-reported wellbeing of the personnel at the beginning of the study, then tracked their career progress for five years. The findings astounded them. 

After accounting for demographic differences, they found that the happiest recruits received four times as many awards during the study period as the least happy recruits, suggesting that those happy soldiers outperformed significantly.

The study helps those with an interest in workplace happiness put other historical findings in context. 

For example, it’s now accepted by psychologists that remarkable wealth does not necessarily lead to happiness, because people adapt to being rich. Research suggests that our happiness doesn’t increase after we reach the $100,000 salary mark.

Santos discusses this topic frequently (here’s a great podcast episode dedicated to it) because many people assume money buys happiness. 

Many people’s career goals are based around attaining a promotion, reaching KPIs for a bonus or searching for jobs that pay well. But this perhaps misses the point of what it means to have a fulfilling and meaningful career.

“The idea that people adapt to wealth quickly is a phenomenon called hedonic adaptation,” says Santos. “Basically, it’s a fancy way of saying ‘You get used to stuff.’

So as soon as you go up an income bracket, you quickly get used to all the benefits that come from that, and then you wind up wanting even more money.”

Combined with the Army study, which was moderated to account for rank/pay, this finding suggests that salary increases and bonuses may not be the most effective way to boost worker performance or happiness.

There’s also a growing awareness that forced fun and positivity – also known as toxic positivity – is one of the biggest impediments to happiness at work. 

Microsoft’s recent Work Trends Index report found that 66 per cent of the 31,000 respondents felt that organised virtual social events feel more like a chore than a fun activity. This tells us that we can’t just sprinkle occasional ‘fun’ activities in for staff every so often and hope that will be enough to keep them feeling happy and engaged. 

Instead, we need to design work experiences that allow employees to feel positively challenged, while also protecting their mental health and wellbeing.

Don’t force it

Happiness needs to be embedded in the foundations of the work we do, not treated like an add-on or bonus.

However, in doing this, we also need to acknowledge the realities of being a human.

“No one is going to be happy at work all the time,” says Dr Tim Sharp, a positive psychologist and founder of The Happiness Institute.

“For example, one study shows that time off, or free time, might have a more positive effect on wellbeing than we once thought.” – Dr Laurie Santos

“If we think that feeling good for its own sake is how to be fundamentally happy at work, we’ll never get there,” he says. “Yes, feeling good is important, but if we want to live a really good life overall, we need to strive for meaningful goals, and that won’t always be fun.”

The lesson for leaders and managers?

“Connecting employees with the end goal – with the purpose of their tasks – can greatly enhance job satisfaction,” says Sharp.

He also says employees need to operate in a culture that foregrounds psychological safety “so they can express other emotions – what might be called ‘negative emotions’ – and not feel as though there’ll be any judgment”.

Leaders need to model happiness

Santos and Sharp agree that an organisation’s leaders, not just HR, have an important role to play when that organisation is trying to boost happiness overall.

  Jenn Lim, author and CEO and co-founder of Delivering Happiness, a coaching and consulting company, goes a step further, arguing that leaders must work on their own happiness as intently, if not more so, than those who work below them.

“That’s not ‘rainbows and unicorns’ happiness, but deep and meaningful happiness,” she says.  “Employees can sniff out the leaders who don’t walk their talk when it comes to happiness.”

Lim has worked with high-profile companies, notably Zappos, and penned a book, Beyond Happiness, on how leaders can make themselves and their companies happier. 

She believes some leaders stifle organisation-wide happiness by dismissing innovative thinking on the topic.

“All too often, I’ve seen leaders get comfortable with their beliefs, actions and behaviours, because that’s what got them the success they have. But when we are comfortable, we resist change and learning.”

“Real positive culture can’t take root if unreasonable expectations are the norm.” – Dr Tim Sharp

HR professionals who hope to enhance employee happiness throughout their organisations can often make progress by working directly with executives and helping themselves to be happy.

“When leaders realise they have to do ‘real work’ on themselves, they can step into another level of authentic self and true happiness.” And that, she says, is contagious.


Learn how to create happy work cultures by honing your leadership skills with AHRI’s short course.


Building happy cultures

Happy cultures emerge when work has been designed in such a way as to both stimulate and challenge employees without overburdening them.

“When I look at a lot of the organisations I’m asked to run programs for, everyone’s stressed and tired,” says Sharp. “Why is that? Oh, they’re working 15-hour days and their deadlines are unreasonable. For me, it’s like trying to put a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. 

“Real positive culture can’t take root if unreasonable expectations are the norm.”

Santos says to be cautious of traditional thinking on what makes for happier employees.

“Employers still think, ‘Well, if I want to make my employees happier, then I should just pay them more money’ – when we now know there are so many other factors.

“For example, one study shows that time off, or free time, might have a more positive effect on wellbeing than we once thought.”

This is called time affluence – another topic Santos takes a deep dive into in her podcast – and it has been shown to have significant impacts on our wellbeing. 

She stresses that happiness is not a one-size-fits-all concept and encourages HR and leaders to help employees discover how they can tweak their roles to bring about more joy in their work through job crafting. 

“Here, I look towards the research of my colleague Amy Wrzesniewski,” she says, explaining that Wrzesniewski has spent considerable time researching how hospital cleaning staff make their work feel more meaningful by taking the time to build relationships with patients.

“It’s a population of employees that you might not think of as having that much choice over who they work for and how they work. But she finds that even some hospital janitorial staff members really adore their work, and they tend to be the ones who job craft. They find ways to infuse their true values into their job description.”

For some of the janitors, job crafting meant being considerate: going out of their way to learn about long-term hospital patients and then adjusting how and when their rooms were cleaned. 

Some made their roles more social by spending time with patients who received few visitors. And others demonstrated loyalty by writing letters to certain patients after they were discharged. 

Santos and Wrzesniewski conclude that those who find ways to infuse their true values into their job description – “Things like creativity, a sense of humour” – can be happy no matter what their role entails.

All they need is a little encouragement and guidance from their employers. 

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the May 2022 edition of HRM Magazine.

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Are your efforts to build happy work cultures working against you?


World-renowned happiness expert Dr Laurie Santos, and other experts, on common misconceptions around building happy work cultures, and methods that actually work.

The first thing Yale University researcher Dr Laurie Santos wants us to know about nurturing happiness in the workplace is that, right now, the odds are stacked against us. And it’s not because the work we’re doing is fundamentally unenjoyable.

Rather, it’s due to the insidious effects of burnout, which Santos says have reached epidemic proportions of late.

“Research shows that burnout, as it is scientifically defined, can colour our feelings about a job that we might have really adored before,” says Santos.

“Scientists think of burnout as involving three parts: emotional exhaustion, interpersonal exhaustion and a sense of ineffectiveness at work. Those three factors could affect anyone’s enjoyment of work.”

Resolving burnout should come first, she says. Only then can the real work of helping employees feel happy at work begin.

The happiness expert

Santos has been studying the art of happiness for years, focusing not only on work-related burnout – which has already been exhaustively researched and reported on – but also on contentment in general. 

Her expertise stretches back to 2018, when she devised a Yale course to help struggling students feel better and cope with university. 

That course, Psychology and the Good Life, has since become one of the most popular courses in Yale’s 320-year history. It’s free for anyone to sign up to.

“I really didn’t like what I was seeing on campus. Students I worked with were reporting depression and anxiety, and trying to fast-forward to the next school break. It wasn’t what I remembered from college.”

After the course came her podcast The Happiness Lab, which allowed Santos to broaden her research and apply learnings to different areas of people’s lives.  

While many organisations have been taking workplace happiness seriously for years now, it wasn’t until recently that action was taken to improve the happiness state of organisations, with Chief Happiness Officers popping up in Silicon Valley and beyond; books about finding joy and happiness at work, and in life more broadly, topping best-seller lists; and targeted research helping employers to build a business case around an investment in happier cultures.

Headshot of Dr Laurie Santos
Image: Dr Laurie Santos, Yale University

One such report, recently published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, persuasively suggested that happy employees achieve more than unhappy ones.

In a sense, the findings were a no-brainer. But the study is compelling because the participants all worked in similar roles, with similar salaries and conditions. The study looked into the happiness state of nearly one million Americans, all serving in the Army.

The researchers – Paul Lester, Ed Diener and Martin Seligman, who is known as the ‘father of positive psychology’ – measured the self-reported wellbeing of the personnel at the beginning of the study, then tracked their career progress for five years. The findings astounded them. 

After accounting for demographic differences, they found that the happiest recruits received four times as many awards during the study period as the least happy recruits, suggesting that those happy soldiers outperformed significantly.

The study helps those with an interest in workplace happiness put other historical findings in context. 

For example, it’s now accepted by psychologists that remarkable wealth does not necessarily lead to happiness, because people adapt to being rich. Research suggests that our happiness doesn’t increase after we reach the $100,000 salary mark.

Santos discusses this topic frequently (here’s a great podcast episode dedicated to it) because many people assume money buys happiness. 

Many people’s career goals are based around attaining a promotion, reaching KPIs for a bonus or searching for jobs that pay well. But this perhaps misses the point of what it means to have a fulfilling and meaningful career.

“The idea that people adapt to wealth quickly is a phenomenon called hedonic adaptation,” says Santos. “Basically, it’s a fancy way of saying ‘You get used to stuff.’

So as soon as you go up an income bracket, you quickly get used to all the benefits that come from that, and then you wind up wanting even more money.”

Combined with the Army study, which was moderated to account for rank/pay, this finding suggests that salary increases and bonuses may not be the most effective way to boost worker performance or happiness.

There’s also a growing awareness that forced fun and positivity – also known as toxic positivity – is one of the biggest impediments to happiness at work. 

Microsoft’s recent Work Trends Index report found that 66 per cent of the 31,000 respondents felt that organised virtual social events feel more like a chore than a fun activity. This tells us that we can’t just sprinkle occasional ‘fun’ activities in for staff every so often and hope that will be enough to keep them feeling happy and engaged. 

Instead, we need to design work experiences that allow employees to feel positively challenged, while also protecting their mental health and wellbeing.

Don’t force it

Happiness needs to be embedded in the foundations of the work we do, not treated like an add-on or bonus.

However, in doing this, we also need to acknowledge the realities of being a human.

“No one is going to be happy at work all the time,” says Dr Tim Sharp, a positive psychologist and founder of The Happiness Institute.

“For example, one study shows that time off, or free time, might have a more positive effect on wellbeing than we once thought.” – Dr Laurie Santos

“If we think that feeling good for its own sake is how to be fundamentally happy at work, we’ll never get there,” he says. “Yes, feeling good is important, but if we want to live a really good life overall, we need to strive for meaningful goals, and that won’t always be fun.”

The lesson for leaders and managers?

“Connecting employees with the end goal – with the purpose of their tasks – can greatly enhance job satisfaction,” says Sharp.

He also says employees need to operate in a culture that foregrounds psychological safety “so they can express other emotions – what might be called ‘negative emotions’ – and not feel as though there’ll be any judgment”.

Leaders need to model happiness

Santos and Sharp agree that an organisation’s leaders, not just HR, have an important role to play when that organisation is trying to boost happiness overall.

  Jenn Lim, author and CEO and co-founder of Delivering Happiness, a coaching and consulting company, goes a step further, arguing that leaders must work on their own happiness as intently, if not more so, than those who work below them.

“That’s not ‘rainbows and unicorns’ happiness, but deep and meaningful happiness,” she says.  “Employees can sniff out the leaders who don’t walk their talk when it comes to happiness.”

Lim has worked with high-profile companies, notably Zappos, and penned a book, Beyond Happiness, on how leaders can make themselves and their companies happier. 

She believes some leaders stifle organisation-wide happiness by dismissing innovative thinking on the topic.

“All too often, I’ve seen leaders get comfortable with their beliefs, actions and behaviours, because that’s what got them the success they have. But when we are comfortable, we resist change and learning.”

“Real positive culture can’t take root if unreasonable expectations are the norm.” – Dr Tim Sharp

HR professionals who hope to enhance employee happiness throughout their organisations can often make progress by working directly with executives and helping themselves to be happy.

“When leaders realise they have to do ‘real work’ on themselves, they can step into another level of authentic self and true happiness.” And that, she says, is contagious.


Learn how to create happy work cultures by honing your leadership skills with AHRI’s short course.


Building happy cultures

Happy cultures emerge when work has been designed in such a way as to both stimulate and challenge employees without overburdening them.

“When I look at a lot of the organisations I’m asked to run programs for, everyone’s stressed and tired,” says Sharp. “Why is that? Oh, they’re working 15-hour days and their deadlines are unreasonable. For me, it’s like trying to put a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. 

“Real positive culture can’t take root if unreasonable expectations are the norm.”

Santos says to be cautious of traditional thinking on what makes for happier employees.

“Employers still think, ‘Well, if I want to make my employees happier, then I should just pay them more money’ – when we now know there are so many other factors.

“For example, one study shows that time off, or free time, might have a more positive effect on wellbeing than we once thought.”

This is called time affluence – another topic Santos takes a deep dive into in her podcast – and it has been shown to have significant impacts on our wellbeing. 

She stresses that happiness is not a one-size-fits-all concept and encourages HR and leaders to help employees discover how they can tweak their roles to bring about more joy in their work through job crafting. 

“Here, I look towards the research of my colleague Amy Wrzesniewski,” she says, explaining that Wrzesniewski has spent considerable time researching how hospital cleaning staff make their work feel more meaningful by taking the time to build relationships with patients.

“It’s a population of employees that you might not think of as having that much choice over who they work for and how they work. But she finds that even some hospital janitorial staff members really adore their work, and they tend to be the ones who job craft. They find ways to infuse their true values into their job description.”

For some of the janitors, job crafting meant being considerate: going out of their way to learn about long-term hospital patients and then adjusting how and when their rooms were cleaned. 

Some made their roles more social by spending time with patients who received few visitors. And others demonstrated loyalty by writing letters to certain patients after they were discharged. 

Santos and Wrzesniewski conclude that those who find ways to infuse their true values into their job description – “Things like creativity, a sense of humour” – can be happy no matter what their role entails.

All they need is a little encouragement and guidance from their employers. 

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the May 2022 edition of HRM Magazine.

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