Whistle While You Work: Researchers Try Unlocking Key to Happiness

  • February 19th, 2016

By Edith Parten

Halbesleben, left, Courtney Page, middle, director of the Commerce Executives Society, and Trent Gibson, a UA business student, share smiles. UA business research shows pay and benefits are not enough to ensure workplace happiness.
Halbesleben, left, Courtney Page, middle, director of the Commerce Executives Society, and Trent Gibson, a UA business student, share smiles. UA business research shows pay and benefits are not enough to ensure workplace happiness.

Lyrics from Pharrell Williams’ hit song “Happy” encourage listeners to “… clap along if you know what happiness is to you.”

This begs the question, what’s the key to being happy? More specifically, what’s the key to happiness at work? More money, more time off, family benefits?

That’s what researchers at The University of Alabama want to know, and they have found some answers.

Dr. Jonathon Halbesleben has spent his career researching what makes people happy and productive in their jobs.

“When people feel like they have meaningful work and it’s adding to what the company is trying to accomplish—particularly if they buy into the company goals— that can be the most powerful force to keeping people happy,” says Halbesleben, a faculty member in UA’s business school.

Halbesleben’s research shows that pay and benefits only get employees so far, and these benefits don’t necessarily contribute to workplace happiness.

“What you need to do is have that (pay) at a baseline level that people can be satisfied with,” says Halbesleben. “Then these social factors, like how meaningful their work is and how well they get along with their coworkers, play a much larger role. The people who stay in their jobs and are really happy are people who often, from the beginning, are asking about opportunities for growth.”

Companies known for making their employees happy like Google and LinkedIn often pay less than expected, but they may have found the key to creating a happy workplace.

Getting along with coworkers and having meaningful work play large roles in sparking job satisfaction, Halbesleben's research shows.
Getting along with coworkers and having meaningful work play large roles in sparking job satisfaction, Halbesleben’s research shows.

“Those are really good examples because many of those companies actually pay below average,” says Halbesleben. “I think a lot of people don’t even know that people often take a pay cut to work at Google. They do a really good job at identifying talent that can contribute in meaningful ways and give them the space to contribute in those meaningful ways.”

Halbesleben adds that companies like Google give their employees freedom and room to grow. His research indicates that companies need to find people they trust to do the job and then let them do the job.

“At Google, there is a set percentage of time within the workweek that an employee can do whatever they want with that time, and it’s not whatever you want as long as it makes Google more profitable.

“It just gives them the freedom to develop new ideas and not worry about it intruding on the other work that they should be doing,” explains Halbesleben. “So rather than coming into work each day, and you’ve got a to-do list that you’re checking it off, it’s a chance to shape the job in a way that you really, truly enjoy. I think a lot of these companies do a really good job of that and, as a result, people are really happy there. And, in the end, the employees come up with innovative, new ideas.”

So why aren’t more companies following Google’s lead?

“It’s hard for companies to give up the control over exactly how the work gets done,” says Halbesleben. “Standardization has been ingrained in everything that has been produced in America for so long,” says Halbesleben.

New research confirms that job crafting can make work more meaningful for employees. The idea behind job crafting is that the employee creates the job he or she is interested in, one that suits their skills, and that makes them happy.

“On the surface that sounds really scary for managers because it looks like all these people are doing their own thing,” Halbesleben says. “Take, for example, professors at a university—the courses have to get taught. We can’t all decide that we’re going to craft our jobs to not teach.

“The core work gets done, but employees might naturally reconfigure how the work gets done and who does the work in a way that better suits their desires, their talents, and their aspirations for the future. As an employee, working with your coworkers to craft your jobs in a way that puts you in a place that makes you happy can be really important.”

Another factor to job happiness that is important, but often overlooked is the time employees are not on the job. Research consistently shows it’s a huge contributor to job satisfaction.

“Actually switching off from work for a while, like not checking your email at night, goes a long way to the time at work being happier and more productive,” says Halbesleben.

People who happily stay in their jobs are often those asking about growth opportunities, research shows (composite illustrated by Julia Ludlam).
People who happily stay in their jobs are often those asking about growth opportunities, research shows (composite illustrated by Julia Ludlam).

“There’s a whole line of research about recovery that looks at that issue of what people do in their off time. It consistently finds that having time away from work—truly away from work—gives people a chance to recharge their batteries and come back to work in a much better place, be more productive and feel less stressed. Supporting the employee’s family life is critical.”

In collaboration with UA doctoral student Ashley Mandeville and Dr. Marilyn Whitman, a business school colleague, some of Halbesleben’s most recent research reveals how people decide whether to take advantage of company benefits.

The list of family-friendly benefits studied include flexible work hours, job-sharing, telecommuting, unpaid leave (for family issues), personal time off/paid leave, family health insurance, pretax dollars for child care, pretax dollars for elder care, resource/referral for child care, resource/referral for elder care, on-site support groups, and work and family seminars.

This research continues, but the three have found that employees decide whether to use a family benefit based upon the perception or decision of others.

“What we found,” says Halbesleben, “is that when people make a decision about whether to use a benefit, they compare themselves to their peer group. But, people are not very good at accurately perceiving their peer group’s opinion.

“We found a persistent pattern where employees really wanted to use a benefit, but because they mistakenly thought others would not support their use of the benefit, they chose not to. In other words, they don’t use a benefit even though they want to, and it’s all because of a misperception.

" ... not checking your email at night goes a long way to the time at work being happier and more productive," Halbesleben says the research shows.
” … not checking your email at night goes a long way to the time at work being happier and more productive,” Halbesleben says the research shows.

Halbesleben also found that not having enough information can be a factor in benefit decisions.

“If you have very little information, you may have one person who says, ‘I don’t think people should take maternity leave,’” says Halbesleben. “That sways the judgment much further than it perhaps should in real life.”

Halbesleben sums up the bottom line to happy employees.

“I think, ultimately, the secret to a happy worker is setting up an employee so that they can do what they’re good at, feel like they’re contributing to something bigger than themselves, and have the room to actually make those contributions,” he says. “If you put those things together, people tend to be very, very happy with the work that they’re doing.”

Halbesleben is a professor of organizational behavior and the HealthSouth Chair of Health Care Management, and Whitman is an associate professor of healthcare management, both in UA’s Culverhouse College of Commerce. The group’s recent research on company benefits has been accepted for publication in Personnel Psychology. 

The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.