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Work isn’t happy 100 percent of the time. We wish it was, but the reality is that employees experience happiness at work in ebbs and flows based on interactions with colleagues and managers. To maximize happiness, people need to understand their own personality and what type of environment and tasks give them energy, argues Onno Hamburger, author of Happiness at Work. Aside from caring about an employee’s well being, HR managers and executives should prioritize employee happiness because it boosts productivity, improves team dynamics and positively impacts the bottom line.

We talked with Hamburger to find out more about what people do — and do not — know about happiness in the workplace.

How do you define happiness at work?

It’s a pyramid of three things: pleasure, authenticity and meaning. Sometimes people have a lot of pleasure at work, but they don’t find a lot of meaning or feel they’re not using their skills. By talking about these three things, you can find out where people are flourishing and what people prioritize.

How do you think the concept of "work happiness" has changed over the years?

Ten years ago, people thought it was crazy to combine happiness and work, but nowadays it’s different. People used to work somewhere for 20 or 30 years for the security, but now they are focusing more on what they really want and what the company can provide.

In the last century, a lot of work was routine and systematic. Because knowledge work, creativity and teamwork are becoming so much more important, emotion [now] has a place in the workplace. If you experience positive emotions, you’re more creative, are more able to think outside the box and are more productive in quantity and quality. Plus everyone has more work to do with less people, and positive emotions and happiness protect you against stress.

Describe a situation where happiness training had a significant impact.

I’m working with a large hospital in the Netherlands to help nurses become happy at work. During the three-day training session, I start off with a big 5 personality questionnaire to help them become aware of their own personality, since a large part of happiness is determined by personality. The questionnaire helps me and their colleagues learn who they are and what gives them energy.

One male nurse likes to work under stressful situations, for example, but other team members don’t like to at all. He never expressed it, but when we looked at his personality, we noticed that he doesn’t experience many negative emotions and he likes a lot of competition. The times when he was happiest at work were when he was handling stressful situations. The team discussed how they can use him to handle those situations, since he becomes happier and excels at his job.

We measure their happiness before and after the sessions, and they’ve said that they are more effective and happier at work. After I train the whole team of nurses, the team functions better.

What's one small thing managers do that has a big impact on employee happiness?

When you look at negative or positive experiences, people perceive negative experiences three times as much as positive ones. To create a positive environment, you need three to five times more positive experiences than negative experiences for people to prosper. If you’re a manager or a member of a team, you need to focus on the things that go well to create a positive state of mind.

HR managers should be aware that if in an hour-long meeting, they discuss something negative half the time and something positive half the time, people will remember it as 80 percent negative and 20 percent positive.

Photo: Can Stock