How to Find Happiness at Work

Workplace culture and regulations can make fulfillment and work-life balance especially hard.

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Amabile's research identified seven "catalysts to progress" that people should look for in seeking satisfying and healthful work experiences:

1. Clear goals to achieve meaningful work.

2. Autonomy to meet those goals.

3. Resources sufficient to achieve the goals.

4. Help—from colleagues, managers, or the organization—that provides employees support and a place to turn when they encounter obstacles.

5. Formal mechanisms to learn from mistakes and get back on course. "People shouldn't be afraid of being punished [for mistakes]," Amabile says, or they won't be creative and work at their higher levels.

6. Openness to ideas at all levels of the organization.

7. Sufficient time to achieve the goals, but not too much time. "The optimal level for creative productivity seems to be low-to-moderate time pressure," she says.

A second source of meaningful support is actions Amabile calls "nourishers"—things that can enhance a person's inner work life and, she says, lead to "positive emotions, happiness, and warmth." Four types of nourishers turned up in her research: being provided respect and recognition, being encouraged when the going gets tough, getting emotional support when workplace or project problems occur, and receiving a sense of affiliation, camaraderie, and trust from your direct colleagues and managers.

As clear as these best practices have become to Amabile, it is equally clear that not many workplaces measure up. "In the larger scheme of things, there are so many organizations where people are feeling battered, and they're not feeling respected," she says. Often, "their managers are not paying attention to what's happening inside the workplace because they're so focused on what's happening externally in the market." The result, Amabile concludes, is a "disengagement crisis" that has left employees at all levels not engaged in what they do at work. Everyone—employees, executives, and business owners—is left worse off.

Berkman says the nature of work in this country must tilt toward employees and work-family change. Beyond debates over whether it's the "right" and healthy thing to do, she says, employers will be forced to make such changes because of the accumulating forces of three demographic trends.

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Women have been in the labor force in large numbers for decades, but are rising in influence and their views on parenthood and career pathways will drive structural changes in the workplace. "The second demographic change is that we have an aging workforce," Berkman says. "Older workers really want to keep working. It's important to them for their physical and cognitive health, and their sense of purpose and well-being." The third factor is the sustained presence of large immigrant populations in the American workplace who bring with them differing cultural and family needs.

All three trends will place pressure on employers to provide more responsive and flexible job structures, she says. Technology is also an enabler of the flexible workplace. "These three things are going to be the shape of America," Berkman says. "We want our people to be the healthiest and the most productive in the world. But I don't think we can do that without fundamentally reorganizing the way we work."