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Happiness at Work – an Oxymoron?

Managers manage the people who do the work but, leaders set the tone for how people feel while they are doing the work. So, take a moment to think about how you can bring a little more happiness into your workplace.

I’ll bet when I say the phrase “work meeting”, the first word that jumps to your mind isn’t “happiness.” In fact, after weeks of one virtual meeting after another, your reaction may be the exact opposite of happiness and include an extreme eye roll while you think to yourself, “not another one!” But hang in there with me because I’m about to make the argument that even now, leaders truly can impact individual employee happiness and in turn, overall organizational productivity, in a few small and simple ways.

Numerous studies have shown that happy employees are more productive, more engaged, more innovative, and more collaborative with their colleagues and within teams.  Yet, being happy right now might seem like a selfish luxury as we watch the number of COVID-19 diagnoses continue to rise in many cities, healthcare workers struggle to keep up, and the economy is sagging under the weight of decline. Many of us are living with high levels of uncertainty, fear and anxiety over our current situation and whatever might be coming next.

When anxiety levels are high your amygdala, the part of your brain that activates when trying to process a potential threat or respond to conflict, shifts into high gear. When your amygdala takes over it steals resources from your prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain responsible for effective problem-solving and executive functioning. Essentially the likelihood of you staying cool, calm, and collected goes way down while the likelihood goes up for temper flare-ups, mood swings and fatigue. The longer your brain stays in high-stress mode deciding whether you should fight, fight or flee what’s going on around you, the less effective you become at processing new information, engaging in effective problem-solving and making good decisions. Hence, why it’s been named “the amygdala hijack” and why it’s crucial for leaders to figure out the best ways to help employees reduce anxiety with compassion, creativity and deeper engagement.

It doesn’t have to come in big, grand gestures. In fact, it’s the small everyday things that, done consistently and done well over time, can really make a difference for employees. Here are a few of my favorite tips for helping you, your team, your colleagues, or your employees better manage what’s going on around you and find a little more happiness at work.

Tip #1:  Check in and listen. Working remotely can be isolating and even in a typical office setting, people can forget to genuinely connect with one another. Try sending a quick text, email, or Slack message when you first log on each morning to say hello or to let a co-worker know you are thinking of them.  Find out what you don’t know about your co-workers and employees by asking how their family is handling the current situation, what activity or practice has offered a welcome distraction lately, or what resource they need now that they are getting more acclimated to working from home. It’s still okay to use the old standby of “How are you?” for checking in but, make it a team norm that you can’t just answer with “fine” or “I’m ok”. Instead, you might encourage employees to share a specific word or phrase to communicate how they are feeling that day and then make a plan for checking in more deeply later with those who you sense need greater support.

Anytime you facilitate a team meeting, it can be incredibly helpful to carve out the first few minutes for a meaningful check in. For smaller teams who may have a bit more time, you could do a virtual round-robin by going around and asking each person to share one thing they are struggling with and one thing they are feeling good about this week. You could also take turns having different team members kick off meetings with their own creative “get to know you” question to pose to the whole group. Last week, our team here at ADR Vantage asked each person to share their favorite quarantine snack (maybe you can even have a favorite snack shipped to your team members as a surprise treat!). Even when stay-at-home orders are lifted and employees begin to return to offices, these check-in practices are worth the time. When done with a genuine interest in hearing from your employees and colleagues, meeting check-ins communicate that you value others and that you care about them as individuals. When employees feel heard and valued they often go above and beyond for their employers and isn’t that the type of employee we all want working for us?

Tip #2:  Bring Back the Joy.  Right now, the news cycle is hard to listen to, social media is filled with stories of fear and heartache, and families are still juggling the competing demands of work and family in the same space. We want to take things seriously and we want to recognize grief…and we want to remember what joy feels like. One simple way to bring a little joy back in to the workplace is to ask about it.

Try kicking off or closing out an online meeting by asking everyone to share one example of something that has brought them joy that week. I recently participated in a virtual meeting “show and tell” where each attendee was asked ahead of time to plan to share an item from their remote office space that makes them smile so they could show it and share with the group what makes that item special to them.  I’ve also seen meetings where participants are asked to share a picture from their phone’s camera roll that brings them happiness or reminds them of something positive. Research shows that recalling positive memories, like the ones you’ve saved in your phone’s camera, can boost positive emotions. When in doubt, you could try telling a good joke or sharing a funny meme. Research also shows that there is a connection between what our body does and how we feel. In other words, laughter can actually help make you feel happier!

Tip # 3:  Recognize & Celebrate the Positives – even the small ones. Who among us isn’t having to pivot the way we do business right now? Some organizations are cancelling big conferences and in-person trainings. Others are trying to hold on to current clients and figure out how to market to new ones. Many are dealing with dwindling income, layoffs and the prospect of long-term closures or planning for the uncertainly that may come in the Fall with a COVID resurgence. It’s hard to see through all the negatives to find the light, but as leaders it’s our job to remind our employees that hope is on the horizon. 

Lastly, happy people tend to hang out with other happy people and feelings are contagious.  So, yes, if you keep your spirits up it’s more likely that those around you will too.  Make it a point in meetings to share successes with your team, recognize and publicly thank a co-worker who’s helped you out recently, and give kudos to those who are going the extra mile or simply doing a great job at handling this “new normal.”  The other day, my boss took time before the end of a call to tell me that she is in awe of how I’m juggling being a great worker and being a great mom right now.  Hearing someone say out loud that they think I’m doing a great job was just the boost I needed to brighten my day!

Managers manage the people who do the work but, leaders set the tone for how people feel while they are doing the work.  So, take moment to think about how you can bring a little more happiness into your workplace.  Your employees will benefit and so will the health of your organization.

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