A bit fluffy. A nice-to-have. Something that isn’t really an employer’s responsibility. 

This is how people used to think about happiness training in the workplace,  James Pacey, co-founder of Haptivate, told Randstad. Haptivate provides wellness coaching for hundreds of companies, including the likes of Google and Amazon Web Services. Since then, pandemic lockdowns and the subsequent rise in mental health issues have significantly changed such perceptions. “Organisations saw how overwhelmed people were becoming [during lockdowns] and started to see that as an operational risk because it was negatively impacting people’s ability to actually perform their roles,” he explains. The World Health Organisation estimates that there was a 25% increase in anxiety and depression around the world during the first year of the pandemic. The numbers were already extremely high, with one in every eight people — or 970 million people — living with a mental disorder in 2019.  

The scale of the problem has lent new credibility to the topic of workplace wellness. Research from Randstad, the world’s leading partner for talent, shows happiness, ambition and motivation have now emerged as key themes for employees all over the world. And that means that employers need to sit up and take notice too.

a changing dynamic

During the pandemic people had more time to reflect about what they wanted from their work. Geographical limitations were also removed thanks to increased remote working, which led many to leave their existing jobs. While the desire for flexibility in terms of where and when we work has a theme for the past few years, new research has highlighted that balance in terms of ambition is now a key factor for jobseekers.

Talent value work-life balance as highly as pay. There is a continued strong desire for flexibility, both in terms of where and when people work. This push for more balance can also impact workers’ hunger for progression, with some saying their level of ambition is directly affected by what is happening in their personal lives.” says Randstad CEO Sander van ‘t Noordende, commenting on the  Workmonitor 2024 report, describing this as the B of the 'new ABC of talent management'. That means companies will need to work even harder to retain staff or attract new talent. And ensuring the workforce is happy is a key part of the equation. The Workmonitor report surveyed 27,000 employees across 34 markets and found that work-life balance is more favourable than career progression, with the youngest generation feeling most strongly about this. 

46% of respondents aged said they would quit a job that prevented them from enjoying their lives, while 31% said they would rather be unemployed than unhappy working in a job they didn’t like. 

And words have already become action for some. 46% of the youngest generation say they have left a job because it didn’t fit in with their personal life. And while younger employees are the most likely to have taken such a decision, the figure across all age ranges is still significant at 27%.

51% WM happy
51% WM happy

the happiness dividend

Aside from recruitment and retention, research suggests there are other significant benefits for companies who are able to keep their staff happy. Multiple studies have linked happiness and workforce engagement to better business outcomes. A meta-analysis of hundreds of independent studies across more than 70 countries concluded that there is strong correlation between employee satisfaction and productivity. Globally, it is estimated that there are 12 billion days of lost productivity every year due to anxiety and depression, while the global cost of these two mental health disorders is estimated at $1 trillion a year. “Even if you're not motivated to focus on employee happiness for moral grounds, then data shows that it's a very powerful and effective business strategy,”  Pacey says. “So even if employee happiness isn't one of your key metrics, then it correlates with the other key business metrics you are trying to drive.”

All of the above demonstrates the imperative for companies to invest in the wellbeing of their people.  

a proactive approach

As with many problems, prevention is often better than cure. 

Organisations have sometimes been reactive to wellness issues, offering helplines or counselling once a problem has emerged. However, more forward-looking firms should think about employee happiness proactively, and also consider it as part of broader strategic decision-making. 

In addition to wellness training itself, there are many other ways that employers can help create happier staff. For example, helping employees to envision their career and work out a tangible way of getting there

While career progression isn't for everyone, employers still need to be mindful of those who have a desire to move up the career ladder. Making sure there is a clear internal path for progression will help employees stay for longer. There’s also a huge opportunity to use coaching to help employees understand what they really want or need from their work life. Once these desires are expressed and understood, it is likely that firms can explore alternative options, such as reskilling or internal mobility. Ultimately, employers who listen to what their employees want are more likely to be able to offer solutions. That gives employees a greater chance of being happy and offers employers the benefit of higher engagement and reduced turnover. 

lessons for employers

Happiness at work is a priority for many people in the post-pandemic age. Employers should adopt a proactive rather than a reactive approach. Prioritising wellness at work will also lead to other business benefits, including higher productivity and engagement.  

Retaining talent will remain a key theme of the job market. Employers should actively listen to what their employees want in order to prevent churn.  


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