Paul Dolan: Designing for Workplace Well-being

This is part of our “Ask a Behavioral Scientist” series, where we give readers the opportunity to pose a question to leading behavioral scientists. Have a question? Ask it here.

Q: How can a leader of an organization design for the happiness of his or her employees?

One of the basic lessons of the behavioral science research is that you can have very big effects from small changes. Often, we think if we’ve got a big problem, we need a big solution. Actually, you can find a very big solution in something quite small.

Particularly with workplace well-being, we know there is a very meaningful distinction between pleasure and purpose. People get purpose—or a lack of it—through work. There’s evidence that interventions to promote fun or pleasure in the workplace actually can backfire because staff see very quickly that these interventions are a cynical attempt to increase productivity or get them to behave differently. Encouraging purpose in work is much more effective, not only for staff well-being, but also for productivity, health, and absenteeism—all things that companies would care about.

The interventions to increase purpose at work are very simple. It’s giving people very timely and salient feedback that what they are doing is important. And that’s actually what I think employers are woefully bad at. If you look at some of the time-series happiness data that Danny Kahneman gathered all those years ago, what’s the least happy time in someone’s work day? The time spent with their boss.

Well, that’s a sad indictment on managers, isn’t it? The worst part of my day is when I am with my boss—the person who should be inspiring me. Part of the issue is that companies will start projects that will be changed or terminated and they will provide no feedback on the fact that any of the work employees have done has been worthwhile, and so it actually feels completely worthless.

Giving people timely, salient feedback—not in a contrived way, but in an authentic way—such as, “That’s a good piece of work” or “We might not be using this now, but we’ll find ways in which we might incorporate it later”—can help create purpose. Little things like this that are done in a very honest and authentic way have massive effects on employee well-being, particularly on purpose, and at very little cost.