Could happiness be the answer to retaining talent?

Written by
Sue Paterson

08 Oct 2015

08 Oct 2015 • by Sue Paterson

What makes a workforce happy?

Over the past five years, there has been an increasing focus on well-being and happiness of employees at work, because research has shown that “a happy workforce is a productive one”. Nic Marks of the New Economics Foundation has spent almost 15 years studying the topic, and concludes that the difference in productivity between happy and unhappy people at work can range from 10% for non-complex repetitive tasks, to up to 40-50% in service and creative industries. Alongside increased productivity comes better employee engagement and staff retention. And that is significant enough to pay attention to.

The problem comes in defining what is meant by staff happiness at work, and how employers can improve this to impact the bottom line. Initiatives have ranged from reducing working hours to providing fresh fruit and coffee. Some companies have offered free massages, ping-pong tables by the coffee machines or training for their leaders to improve their communications using social media.

Management models for well-being at work, based on empirical observation and staff surveys, are often used to define the interventions. And they are all a bit hit and miss. These models include factors ranging from meeting basic needs like pay and office environment, to helping staff make a difference and contribute to a higher purpose. It is no surprise that leaders find it very difficult to define actions that will improve their staff’s happiness in a way that will positively impact productivity, employee engagement and staff retention.

With the remarkable recent developments in neuroscience, it no longer has to be a guessing game. Understanding how the brain works gives concrete insights that will help leaders to transform their workplaces into ones full of happy staff.

Understanding your brain and your eight emotions

Our brains are made up of three parts, which have evolved over millions of years. The most primitive part is the brainstem, also called the Reptilian brain. It regulates basic functions like breathing and the body’s metabolism. The Mammalian brain evolved later, and is related to emotions, memory and behaviour. The most recent development of the brain is the Cognitive brain, which is related to language, logic and decision-making.

Because of the way we have evolved, when any danger is identified it is the Mammalian part of the brain that responds the fastest, and it is only later that the Cognitive brain makes sense of anything that has happened. As a result, everything we do is full of emotion shaped by memory, and not logic, even at work.

It is now well established that there are eight emotions that underpin the way everyone thinks, acts and feels. Of these, five of them,the majority,are related to keeping us safe and letting us know about danger. These emotions, known as the escape or avoidance emotions, are fear, anger, disgust, shame and sadness. Because these emotions are related to survival, they are very easy to trigger. Of all the escape/avoidance emotions, fear is the one that is most easily triggered. When a threat is perceived, the brain focuses on dealing with it above all else to ensure survival. The brain pays much more attention to dealing with the threat than to doing whatever job it is supposed to be doing. Productivity declines, employees are less engaged and there is a higher staff turnover.

Two of the eight emotions are to do with attachment and having a positive involvement with things and people. These emotions are excitement/joy, and trust/love. When triggered, these emotions allow the brain to focus fully on the task in hand and to deliver it in the best way possible.

The eighth emotion, startle/surprise, can take us into the direction of either escape/avoidance (‘startle/horror’) or attachment (‘surprise/delight’). High quality creativity takes place when the surprise emotion is present, swinging into excitement/joy. 

At work, it is much more productive to consciously trigger the attachment emotions of excitement/joy and trust/love than to trigger the escape/avoidance emotions (and fear in particular), because that makes employees concentrate on just protecting themselves rather than doing their work.

A happy workforce is one that is full of excitement about what needs to be done, joy at doing it, trust of leadership and teammates, and love –,the sophisticated kind of love that creates intellectual and practical rigour, leaves us smarter and better people.

Initiatives that focus on triggering the attachment emotions for staff , and this can vary depending on the person  will result in happier staff, and will be effective in improving productivity, employee engagement and staff retention. This is because, when the attachment emotions are really engaged in a person, then their energy flows outwards and can be fully deployed in the strategic and operational goals of the organisation.