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If happy employees are productive employees, how do you make them happy?

Author: Steve Wilson


(Alternative Title: why you should stop chasing employee happiness and strive for employee engagement)

A number of recent (and not so recent) LinkedIn posts, news articles and research papers posit that happy employees are productive employees1,2. They collectively make a persuasive argument. But the subjective happiness of our employees can be a difficult concept to link to workforce productivity, and it can be equally (if not more) ephemeral in practice.

If we believe that happy employees make productive employees, then of course the questions next to be asked are ‘what makes for a happy employee?’ and ‘how can we make our employees happy?’.

Many might turn (and they frequently have) to the employee satisfaction survey. But satisfaction; a state of ease with one's situation, is not the same as happiness; an overall positive emotional state. It’s rational to think that dissatisfaction can impede happiness. In which case it should be possible to increase employee happiness by removing their sources of dissatisfaction - as identified in the employee satisfaction survey. But what we have long known from the body of work with customer satisfaction, and the growing work with employee satisfaction, is that good levels of satisfaction do not prevent brand switching3. And that only the highest levels of satisfaction are linked to sizeable changes in emotional state, behaviors and outcomes (e.g brand and job loyalty)4. As it turns out satisfaction has, at best, a tenuous link with worker productivity5.

The stoics tell us that, over the long term, true happiness doesn’t result from consumerism, or fiscal reward, (ok, yes - it can help). Studies have shown that, beyond a certain level of monetary incentive, employees won’t achieve more6. Similarly, beyond a certain level of income, having more ‘things’ or more money doesn’t improve self-reported levels of happiness. What we at Unipart have seen instead, through extensive research and practice, is that happiness can be brought about through purpose, by achieving goals, by being involved and existing in a group with a shared vision or mission and by being utilised and having the autonomy to deploy one's talent effectively in order to make a difference.

So, the correct pursuit to improve productivity might not be finding ways to make your employees happy or satisfied. In fact there is research to say that as people become more satisfied they will strive less and, with no challenge, they will disengage7. Instead employer’s efforts would be best spent creating a shared vision, providing employees with the necessary tools, support, environment and the appropriate task load or challenge so that they are enabled, engaged and capable of doing their best work. It is in this scenario that engaged employees will be able to attain their own happiness. The best approach, in our experience, is to engage employees in the organisation they work for, and in the work that they do.

Now, Employee Engagement can sometimes be dismissed in the boardroom as being too ‘fluffy’. This is either because there is a perception of there being little evidence that positively connects it directly to director bonuses and share price (there is lots8), or because the process for engaging employees is not immediately understood or straightforward to implement (there is certainly some truth to this).

In Unipart we have seen the evidence that connects employee engagement to organisational performance and we have spent decades investing in our understanding and practice of the levers9 (including Employee Engagement) that can be pulled to nurture and embed a culture of continuous Improvement. Subsequently, for the last 15 years, Unipart Expert Practices have also been helping organisations in many different industries to engage employees, implement operational excellence, deliver significant returns and sustain organisational change for the long term.

So, if you knew that Employee Engagement can drive employee performance (and productivity and profit!), and you had a trusted advisor who could help you to improve Employee Engagement in your organisation (whilst also at the same time resolving some of your most important operational and supply chain issues) - why wouldn’t you take that first step?

After all, your competitors may have already taken it.

There is still time to have your say: Report: Finding a Productivity Puzzle diagnosis for UK Manufacturing



  • Rees, T. (2020). Happier workers could be a piece of the economy’s most important puzzle. [online] The Telegraph. Available at: www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2020/02/06/happier-workers-could-piece-economys-important-puzzle/ [Accessed 14 Feb. 2020].
  • Oswald, Andrew J. , Proto, Eugenio and Sgroi, Daniel. (2015) Happiness and productivity. Journal of Labor Economics, 33 (4). pp. 789-822.
  • ,4 Oliver, R. L. (1999). Whence Consumer Loyalty? Journal of Marketing, 63(4_suppl1), 33–44. https://doi.org/10.1177/00222429990634s105
  • 5 Judge, T. A.; Thoresen, C. J.; Bono, J. E.; Patton, G. K. (2001). "The job satisfaction-job performance relationship: A qualitative and quantitative review". Psychological Bulletin. 127 (3): 376–407. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.127.3.376. PMID 11393302.
  • 6 Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2013). Does Money Really Affect Motivation? A Review of the Research. [online] Harvard Business Review. Available at: https://hbr.org/2013/04/does-money-really-affect-motiv [Accessed 26 Feb. 2020].
  • 7 Vittersø, J., Oelmann, H.I. & Wang, A.L. Life Satisfaction is not a Balanced Estimator of the Good Life: Evidence from Reaction Time Measures and Self-Reported Emotions. J Happiness Stud 10, 1–17 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-007-9058-1
  • 8 Kruse, K. (2020). Why Employee Engagement? (These 28 Research Studies Prove the Benefits). [online] Forbes.com. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/kevinkruse/2012/09/04/why-employee-engagement/ [Accessed 20 Feb. 2020].
  • 9 Unipartconsulting.com. (2020). The five key enablers that deliver and sustain Continuous Improvement [online] Available at: https://www.unipartconsulting.com/blog/five-key-enablers-to-deliver-sustain-continuous-improvement [Accessed 01 Feb. 2020].
The Unipart Way: performance improvement that sustains

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