Are you happy at work?

What if you asked your friend if they were happy in their marriage, and they answered ‘not really – I’m bored, I don’t love them, but I don’t really know what else to do.’

You’d be quite clear they need to sort it out or end the relationship.

Yet how many conversations have you had with your friends about their job, and they’ve said almost exactly the same thing? Did you reply with the same conviction?

Perhaps you’ve said the same thing, yourself.

Matthew Taylor, CEO of the Royal Society of Arts, makes this point in his compelling and timely focus on employee engagement in the UK – and our failure to deal with it.

Timely, because the UK leads Europe in the number of employees actively disengaged from their work. Timely, because the UK is still fighting its way out of an economic downturn, and there is a clear correlation between productivity and levels of engagement in the workplace.

Timely, because there is something we can do about this pandemic of unhappiness.

The RSA has partnered with Engage for Success to better understand the barriers to happiness at work and to find a solution.

What’s striking is that the evidence has always been loud and clear – disengaged workers are more likely to become physically and mentally unwell, require more days off work and perform worse at their jobs; actively engaged workers are more productive, are more likely to stay with their employer for longer, and are less likely to experience ill health.

Put simply, increasing engagement could add tens of billions to GDP.

So why – if we know this – have our aspirations for work not yet turned into social norms?

Why has the image of the suited city worker, staring at the bottom of his pint, lamenting the misery of his boring job, his sociopathic boss and meaningless deadlines become the comedy trope of sitcoms far and wide?

Why do so many of us accept that when we clock in at 9am, we hang our brains on the back of the door and consider a ‘good day, well done’ signalled by a clear inbox – as the overwhelming majority of office workers claim. It’s not very funny, is it?

The theme I really warm to in the RSA’s position is what it means to be a ‘citizen at work’. It’s something I’ve been thinking about ever since I heard Eric Schmidt mistakenly refer to Google as a country, not a company. A blooper, yes, but maybe he was onto something – what if we did urge businesses to behave like countries, with as colourful a spectrum of need and aspiration amongst its citizens? And likewise, what if we remained ourselves as citizens of the organisations we work for, rather than passive employees?

As a country, a business and its citizens could better position the interplay between wellness and economic productivity, the difference between investment and cost, and its finite resources and sustainability.

We may already talk about governance and accountability, but what about individualism, solidarity and hierarchy and the ways in which people organise themselves? We could redefine how enterprise, community and leadership all play a part in our working days, as invariably they do in our lives elsewhere. We could redefine the impact we have on our customers, as we do for our family, friends and neighbours.

The point is, we don’t need to have an existential crisis to change the way businesses operate. If living is meaning, then the work we do must be meaningful – that’s the proxy for employee engagement.

In just the same way we see the correlation between engaged workers and productivity, so too do we see the connection between purpose-led companies and happier staff. Meaningful work is driven from understanding the role you play, the value you bring and purpose of your job. It is driven from being given autonomy and responsibility.

Companies which seek to do good, and make money whilst doing it, are leading the way because there are two powerful elements at play: by actively demonstrating their positive impact, they are increasingly attracting high quality employees; and by making that social purpose fundamental to every job within the company, they’re retaining them.

Extensive research by Net Impact has shown that people who are able to make a direct social and environmental impact through their job are happier at work than those who aren’t, by a ratio of 2:1.

The inherent values that the triple bottom line establishes are those that drive employee engagement. Just look at the Best Companies results for this year – the top ten alone demonstrate that those businesses which drive down decision-making, collaborate and co-create with their staff – even co-own with them – and position people and planet at the heart of their business model, perform year-on-year with less staff churn and employees who advocate for their company. It’s a win-win situation.

As Matthew said, ‘better work should be everyone’s business.’ And better business should be everyone’s work.

My piece first ran on virgin.com

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