I came across an old HBR article the other day explaining why we should stop looking for happiness at work and look for meaning instead. You may wonder why I’m digging up an old article from 2019, well simply because it reappeared on the French version in 2022 (fresh articles guaranteed…) and because I see that articles of this kind continue to multiply it’s time to put my foot down once again.
Happiness at work does not exist
Once and for all, happiness at work does not exist and this for an excellent reason. A person is happy or not, he’s not happy depending he’s at work or outside of work.
Promising happiness at work is an unrealistic promise because the company has no control over what happens outside of work and no matter what the company does, a person in distress in his private life will not be happy at work.
Happiness is also a notion that fluctuates over time. What makes a person happy one day always makes him happy a week, a month, a year later.
And I would add that there are as many definitions of happiness as there are employees because everyone has different expectations in this area at a given time.
An unrealistic promise.
Happiness at work is running out of steam, so we are focusing on a new concept: meaning. It’s a concept that is nothing new but that seems to have been brought out of the closet for the occasion.
Is meaning the key to happiness? I don’t think so, and in any case not always, and that’s not exactly the point of the article.
But using a very valid concept (we are not discovering today the importance of meaning at work) here seems to me to deviate it from its…meaning and to constitute one more attempt in an approach which consists in telling the employees that their needs are taken into account while answering only the needs of…the company.
“You feel bad, look for meaning because you should not expect any salary gesture from us, any improvement of your working conditions and workload”.
Moreover, when I hear employees talk about meaning, it is more often to say that their work context (management, paradoxical injunctions, tools and processes) has none and that, in the end, it is the company that has lost its common sense.
It is also safe to say that as companies become more and more complicated, as they are unable to respond to complexity with anything other than complication, they pass the buck to their employees: you can’t find the path to simplicity, so find a meaning to what you do.
In short, if the notion of meaning at work is important and nothing new, using it to convince employees to look elsewhere than at their real needs that the company does not satisfy is a bit of bad faith.
But since a while ago I mentioned the notion of satisfaction to replace happiness, I would like to take the opportunity to dig a little deeper into the subject.
Satisfaction at work
I think that if happiness is a vague and difficult promise to keep, satisfaction is something more pragmatic and attainable.
It consists of a number of things.
Satisfaction of working in a company whose values you share.
Satisfaction of doing a job you love.
Satisfaction with the work accomplished.
Satisfaction of seeing one’s work recognized (including in terms of salary).
Satisfaction with work methods, tools, processes that are performance factors rather than burdens.
Satisfaction that the company is demanding but does not exceed certain limits and has reasonable expectations in terms of personal investment.
Satisfaction with a manager who helps you grow.
Satisfaction with the prospects for development.
Satisfaction with the atmosphere, with colleagues.
So of course you can have all this and not be happy, but at least it is a promise that the company can keep.
From engagement to happiness at work, through meaning and many other things, companies keep inventing new concepts to show that they care about their employees while avoiding the heart of the problem.
By simply working on employee satisfaction, they would give themselves an attainable goal which, in addition, would allow them to tackle what matters to their employees.