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How to create happier employees

How can you create happier employees? Professor Jochen Menges discusses the ways companies can develop well-being initiatives that genuinely make people feel better.

Written by: Laura W. Geller

In recent years, many company leaders have embraced well-being and happiness initiatives as critical to both their employees’ satisfaction and the success of their organization. They have rolled out a variety of programs designed to encourage people to focus on wellness and avoid the harmful effects of stress. What may have at one time been perceived as a perk is quickly becoming a staple of corporate life.

Although few would argue with the notion that companies should do what they can to promote the well-being of their workforce, a question looms: Are these initiatives actually making people happier? It’s an issue that Jochen Menges, who holds the chair of human resource management and leadership in the department of business administration at the University of Zurich and works as a university lecturer in organizational behavior at the University of Cambridge Judge Business School, has grappled with for much of his career.

Menges studies the role of emotions in organizational life and has worked as a researcher, teacher, and consultant at companies large and small in both the U.S. and Europe. He’s observed firsthand how positive emotions can motivate and inspire people, but he has also seen that such feelings are not easy to engender. What makes one employee happy won’t necessarily have the same effect on the colleague sitting one desk away.

These and other findings from Menges’s research call into question the efficacy of one-size-fits-all programs and instead point to a more individualized approach to addressing well-being in the workplace. It’s an approach, as Menges recently described for strategy+business, that is challenging to implement given the current structure of many established organizations — but that may hold the key to helping people feel happier at work.

S+B: In your observation, how effective are the majority of today’s corporate happiness and well-being initiatives?
They are a good start. These programs show that organizations understand that their employees’ emotions matter. That is in line with 30 years of organizational research, which has revealed the powerful effects emotions have on how employees behave at work.

Having said that, many well-being initiatives fall short of expectations, because they only offer ways to relieve stress — for example, through yoga classes or massages — and do not resolve the problems that originally caused the stress. If organizations want to be serious about employee well-being, they need to reconsider how work gets done and systematically remove unnecessary stress factors.

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