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What DOES Make Your Employees Happy?

By: Justin Keller

illustration of corporate man downhill reaching for woman hand uphill

Last week we talked about all the cool things so many companies are doing to try and increase employee happiness and engagement. Now we’ll get to the fun part. So what exactly does improve employee happiness? Lucky for us, the smarties at Harvard Business Review and The Energy Project teamed up to figure it out and it boils down to four things– none of which are free Teslas for everyone. Oops.

4 Components of Employee Happiness

The basic employee happiness stack consists of four needs:

  1. Physical
  2. Mental
  3. Emotional
  4. Spiritual well-being

Are video game cabinets and unlimited Red Bulls going to help your employees sleep better? Adopt healthier diets? Adopt healthier, positive mental habits? Or feel like they’re part of something larger than themselves at work? It’s crucial that business and HR leaders make a firm distinction between “perks” and “wellness.” Perks are great but impart only a fleeting and superficial happiness.

Current Wellness Programs

You might be thinking, “my company has a wellness program, so they care about my happiness!” Hopefully you’re right– but the odds are against you (and they’re 93 to 7). The reason? Only 7% of workplace wellness programs are “comprehensive”, according to a professor of public health at UNC Chapel Hill (a school which offers RethinkCare to its faculty and staff! (Shameless plug)).

At the risk of sounding cynical, the reason your company’s encouraging you to get 10,000 steps is because you’re getting really expensive to insure, and they want you to help them offset that cost. A reasonable enough request, considering you’re lowering costs while improving your quality of life simultaneously.

That said, the mental and emotional wellness component of a wellness program is almost always overlooked. When it is incorporated, it often comes in the form of an EAP– a reactive solution for problems that have already gone too far to be addressed directly by the company.

Three quarters of the way through 2016, we’re just now beginning to see increased activity in corporate space for proactive mental and emotional wellness and stress resilience. This is shocking. Especially considering 83% of people consider work their greatest source of stress- and that ends up costing U.S. businesses over $300 billion annually.

How to Start

Honestly, it’s not an easy thing to accomplish. Training mental wellness and emotional intelligence is tough. Business culture (and Western culture) avoids feelings like the plague; it’s not a subject taught at schools and poor mental health is stigmatized. The typical attitude towards mental health is: anything short of being suicidal is something you’ve just gotta tough out.

There are a lot of ways to start training employees to be happy, and yes, it is training. Just like physical fitness requires going to the gym on the regular, mental fitness requires the same disciplined approach. You’re not- nor will you ever- be able to make your entire workforce happy.

Results of Corporate Mindfulness

But if you can train just a few of your employees to regulate their emotions, focus better and control their thoughts, two awesome things will happen:

  1. Happiness is gonna spread. It only takes a few positive forces to start to see change in your company. A massive, 20-year study on how social connections affect happiness found that a single unhappy connection increased the odds of personal unhappiness by 7%. But happy connections increased the odds of personal happiness by 9%. What’s more – single happy encounters can increase personal happiness for up to a year. What?!?
  2. You’ll decrease your risk exposure to HSEs, or “Highly Stressed Employees.” Consider that 33% of your employees are already “extremely stressed,” then imagine what things are like for the top 1% of your most stressed-out employees. If you can help just a few of those most-stressed employees, the downstream effects will be tremendous.

This is a big reason you’re seeing corporate mindfulness programs come online in companies like Google, Salesforce and Aetna. It’s one thing to distribute a brochure or bring a trainer in the office once a quarter, it’s another thing to cultivate a company culture of mental strength and resilience. Dedication and focus are imperative to engender a happy work culture, but for the companies willing to dedicate the resources to it, the results are extraordinary:

  • 46% reduction in cost due to employee turnover
  • 83% of people in mindfulness-based training improved their cardiovascular health
  • 12% increase in productivity and performance
  • 19% reduction of cost due to sick leave
  • 52 minutes more of sleep every night

Mental and physical wellness are intrinsically linked. Many companies have wellness programs that focus on physical wellbeing, leveraging wellness platforms like Virgin Pulse or Limeaid and/or encourage activity with Fitbits or Misfits.  

But overall wellbeing comes from trading bad habits for healthy habits and choosing positive behaviors. Healthy habits start in the head, not on the wrist. That’s why it’s so important to consider the whole person’s wellbeing, because they’re better together. A recent study shows that combining physical exercise and mindfulness reduce depression by a remarkable 40%. Enough said.


So what makes your employees really happy? Top to bottom health. Once you’ve created a culture of health and happiness, feel free to bring in all the pinball machines and beer carts you want, but don’t mistake a little Friday fun for true employee happiness.

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