How to make your staff happy

Every NFP wants their staff and volunteers to be happy.

Not just because research shows that happy staff are slightly more productive (around 12 percent more) and unhappy staff are slightly less productive (about are 10 percent less) but because we care about the people we work with and want the best for them.

We can’t create a better world by making people unhappy.

So what’s the best way to tell if your staff are happy? And what should you do if they’re not?

Ross Reekie is the founder of Rise Consulting, an organisation that works to create meaningful, happy workplaces.

Ross’ session at the 2018 NFP People Conference was one of the highest rated across the whole two days, so we asked him to share some more of his best tips for how to measure and boost your staff’s happiness – for those who couldn’t be at the conference.

Happiness and meaning

Ross wants you to know that while there is some overlap, it’s important to distinguish the difference between simple pleasure and meaning or purpose.

“There are two different forms of happiness – there’s short-term happiness, which is all about maximising pleasure and minimising pain – and then there’s long-term happiness, which is more about finding meaning in your work and long-term fulfillment,” he says.

“Everything meaningful we’ve ever done in our lives certainly involves some pain and sacrifice, and that’s what makes it worthwhile.

“So when we’re talking about happiness at work, I think we need to have a balance of both forms – but certainly an emphasis on the second.”

Why happiness matters at work

Ross says he can’t overemphasise the importance of happiness in the workplace, and warns against dismissing the conversation surrounding it as ‘fluffy’ or inconsequential.

“I think what we’ve known intuitively for a long time is now being backed up with scientific studies, in particular in the field of positive psychology but also in [the field of] work and organisational behaviour,” he says.

“We now know that happiness is an input factor in success rather than an output factor, meaning happier people do better in life – and it’s not the doing better in life that makes them happy, it’s the happiness that makes them do better in life.

“That applies in the workplace as well, where it has an enormous impact on our organisations.”

On an individual level, Ross says people have better relationships, engage more with their work, are less stressed, and are generally healthier when they’re happy.

“We’re also outrageously more innovative and creative when we’re happier – being unhappy is a huge barrier to creativity and innovation in the workplace,” he says.

But beyond all that, Ross says staff happiness is critical for one key reason.

“All of these stats and studies are really interesting, but anyone who’s worked in a place where staff are happy can feel the difference,” he says.

“It’s just more fun and fulfilling – being happy makes you spring out of bed in the morning instead of snoozing the alarm over and over again.”

The easiest way to tell if your staff are happy

When it comes to determining how happy your staff are, Ross has one simple tip: ask them.

“It sounds like a crazy concept but it’s so powerful,” he says.

At Rise, Ross says a system has been established to do just that, which they call ‘happiness chats’.

“They happen once a month – everybody sits down with their direct manager, who has one simple question to ask: ‘are you happy?’” he says.

“And then they listen. Sometimes meetings go for 30 seconds and sometimes you’ve got to schedule extra time because the employee has some things on their mind.”

Ross says the simple act of asking your staff if they are happy is a fantastic way to nip problems in the bud before they become issues – and, importantly, before people leave.

“It’s also a great source of ideas in terms of what’s working in the organisation and what’s not,” he says.

“At Rise, we get so much out of these conversations – people feel heard and listened to, and that builds trust that your manager’s got your back.”

While Ross says the easiest way to determine if your staff are happy or not is to ask them, there are also some signs you can look out for.

“It’s people starting to turn up later and later, it’s people dragging their feet, it’s body language that isn’t upbeat, it’s people sighing a lot in the office,” he advises.

With some attention to these things, “you can tell when someone is really engaged in what they’re doing and when they’re not.”

Boosting happiness

So if you’ve determined a certain staff member at your NFP is unhappy in their work, what now?

“The first question I would be asking them is ‘what is it that’s not making you happy?’” Ross says.

“You know they’re not happy so the next question is why not? What is it that’s causing that?

One study found four intrinsic contributors to meaning and satisfaction at work:

  1. Having a meaningful purpose
  2. Having choice over the best way of fulfilling that purpose
  3. Performing work activities competently, and
  4. Making progress to achieving the purpose.

Ross says the things that lead to a feeling of happiness, satisfaction and meaning at work generally fall under similar headings, like feeling challenged, having autonomy and also feeling a sense of belonging.

When things go wrong, these can help diagnose the issue.

“For example, it could be they’re feeling like they don’t belong and are not part of the team. It might be they’re not feeling a sense of achievement, in which case they’re either overstretched and undersupported, or they’re underchallenged,” he says.

And once you know what’s causing the unhappiness, Ross says the solution can be simple and low cost.

“When people ask me about the number one thing they can do to improve work happiness, I would say make it a business priority,” he says.

“You actually need to put it really high up on your list of strategic imperatives, and track it and measure it like you would with any other metric in your organisation.”

Tracking and measuring happiness

When it comes to breaking happiness down into metrics, Ross says it’s best measured in terms of outcomes.

“Start by looking at some output indicators,” he says.

“You’ll see it in your absenteeism, you’ll see it in staff sick days, you’ll see it in productivity.”

Turnover, engagement, lower levels of burnout/stress and fewer or no bullying reports are also valuable workplace happiness metrics to track.

Next, Ross suggests making somebody responsible for it all – with buy-in from senior management and the board.

This could look like a ‘chief happiness officer’, though it doesn’t even have to be a standalone role.

“Putting in place a chief happiness officer – not a fully paid independent role, but somebody in your organisation taking [the role] on, even on a rotating basis – is a really great way of making sure happiness and meaning get the attention that can make a practical difference,” Ross says.

“It’s their role to understand more about happiness levels, workplace morale and meaning, and to continue the initiatives that have been suggested to make things better.”

Such happiness-tracking initiatives might include running formal staff surveys; having one-on-one discussions with staff; or conducting more informal happiness polls – and then tracking the results. Online tools like TeamMood can help with this.

Happiness can sometimes seem a nebulous or fluffy concept – particularly in the context of a high-pressure not-for-profit workplace. But just remember: “happiness is an input factor in success rather than an output factor, meaning happier people do better” and have greater impact.

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