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Happiness research: How societal structure and the work environment impact our wellbeing

Happiness Study

For many people, happiness comes down to the individual. The emphasis is generally on what we - as functioning adults with free will - can do to change our lives. The focus is rarely on society and the structures that hold us together. Experts consider this somewhat of a smokescreen that protects us from thinking that the system we belong to, and work for every day, is justified and making us all happy. The reality could be far different.  

If economic structures and societal frameworks can’t be changed in the immediate future, how do we achieve happiness within these structures? And how does work come into this complex algorithm? 

A study of over 2000 individuals found people were nearly two and a half times more likely to take a job that gave them more autonomy, than want a job that gave them more influence, reports Melissa Dahl in New York Magazine. Autonomy has also shown to increase our longevity: A study published in 1997 which investigated job control among British Civil Servants found ‘lack of job control contributed more to incidence of coronary heart disease than standard risks such as smoking’.

How the workplace can help

How autonomous we feel at work depends on how much responsibility we take on, how our work makes a difference to others, as well as the quality of the work. This, in turn, influences employees’ level of commitment - if they feel they are in control of their work and working environment, they are more likely to stay put in their current organisations.

Organisations often micromanage their employees indirectly through expecting them to complete tasks in a specific way. Writing for Medium, Gustavo Razzetti suggests the how seems to matter more than the what often for reasons unknown to employees (and executives), decreasing employee engagement and sense of autonomy.

One possible solution to this, is ‘job crafting’, and the good news is that it’s easy and inexpensive for companies to implement. This entails simple changes carried out by employees themselves to their work design - often without management’s knowledge - to foster a more positive work environment. This could mean, for example, forging enjoyable relationships with co-workers. Managers certainly still have a key role to play in job design; job crafting simply values the opportunities employees have, to make small adjustments that will personally benefit them.

Our world is changing, and so too is the workplace. Employers are starting to recognise that a happy workforce is not solely dependent on income. Increasingly, companies are introducing policies such as ‘unlimited’ holidays, flexible working hours, work from home opportunities and four-day weeks. Clearly, professional structures are moving from monetary-grounded decisions to those based on increased lifestyle flexibility.    


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