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As part of our series on Employee Experience we ask what it means to be happy at work.

This article is part of a series on Employee Experience.

Uncomfortable with many of the assumptions we hear about employees, we interviewed a mix of young frontline and knowledge workers, with degrees and without, and from a wide range of backgrounds. We sought to understand how they feel about work, where the differences lie and whether anything we think we know about them is true.

30% of global workers say they earn their living from their childhood dream job or a related field. That means it could be that two out of three of your employees would rather not be doing what they’re doing.

With that in mind, should employers take responsibility for the happiness of their employees? The prevailing wisdom suggests you should, as “happy” employees can be 20% more productive. But we spoke to Jochen Menges, a professor of HR Management and Leadership at the University of Zurich and University of Cambridge who challenges the assumption that we should pursue happiness at work at all. In an article for the University of Cambridge he says, “I think people differ in how they wish to feel at work. Although many of us simply say ‘I want to be happy at work’, what we actually mean by ‘happy’ can differ greatly.”

Across the young people we spoke to, happiness was defined in vastly different ways. For a twenty-three-year-old frontline worker, “I prefer common sense work. It’s easy.” For another young person we spoke to, it’s something quite different: “It’s having room for me to express my creativity, working on my own premise, where I make decisions.” For another it’s, “Having good people around you that care about you and your health and your mental state.”

We all have colleagues that value different things - we are people after all, not just employees - and this is where employer policies can alienate some employees. Take this twenty-three-year-old knowledge-worker: “I never take a lunch break. I work 7.30am - 6pm. Sometimes I work after work and at weekends. Sometimes I find it hard to turn off. But that’s not my company, I push that on myself.” Policies to limit the time spent at work might not make this employee happier.

What employers can do is make sure they’ don’t create undue stress or anxiety for their employees and have support in place for those who need it. 15 million working days were lost to work related stress in 2017/18, more than half of all ill-health related absences and an increase of 24% on the previous year. If it’s productivity gains you’re after, this is a good place to start.

The second thing employers can do is support employees in finding their own happiness at work. Jochen says, “What we have to do is give people more freedom to do their work and to behave in the ways they think is best. You don’t make your employees happy, you give them the room to make themselves happy.”

Gore takes this a step further. Long famed for its innovative approach to management, Gore assigns every employee a sponsor. The sponsor’s role is to find their charge the place in Gore where they can create the most impact based on their skills and the needs of different teams. With a nod to freedom and autonomy, employees are free to seek out a new sponsor if they want to.

Feeling happy by earning a living from your childhood dream job clearly isn’t feasible for everyone, but by understanding their employees’ motivations and skills and working to deploy them in the right place in their organisation, employers can help their employees feel exactly the way they want to feel at work.

For more from our Employee Experience series visit madebymany.com/employeeexperience

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