How to be happy at work

As more people say work is making them unhappy, Marie-Claire Chappet pinpoints the five things to do now

  • Published 17.01.18

More of us than ever now feel that our work life is actually affecting our mental health. So why are we so down? And, more importantly, what needs to change to fix it? Enter Dr Annie McKee. The senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, and high-profile leadership consultant, has written a book called How to be Happy at Work. After years spent consulting in the public and private sectors, McKee was alarmed at how unhappiness was such a consistent problem among her clients.

"There have definitely been times when I have been unhappy at work," she says, relaying how, as a single mother at 27, she took herself to college to finally pursue her career. "But part of the reason I wrote this book was that it didn't seem to matter what size or type of company it was, so many workers said: I want to do well at work, I really want to enjoy my work, but I'm miserable."

McKee believes that our unhappiness, beyond any particulars about our individual office cultures, is tied to three work myths that we have blindly believed for years: work has to be gruelling, how we feel about work doesn't matter, and we cannot ask for anything more from work. Ultimately, we believe we are not meant to be happy at work.

This isn't just bad for us, it's bad for business, too. "When we are unhappy, miserable and disengaged, we don't give our best. Happy companies outperform their competitors by 20 per cent."

According to research by consultancy Robert Half, workers in the UK highlighted three key factors affecting their job satisfaction: pride in their organisation, feeling appreciated, and being treated with fairness and respect. Based on this, the onus for your happiness at work can, and should, lie with your workplace. "If we can help leaders understand themselves better, and understand the power that they have to either create good, happy work cultures, or the opposite, then we can make a difference in the minds of individual people who get up and go to work every day, and to the companies as well. But companies strive for organisational success over personal success," McKee notes.

It may be why the UK freelance economy is flourishing. Since 2009, it has grown by 25 per cent, and there are an estimated two million freelance workers. A survey conducted by a global network of freelancers showed that a third of workers surveyed claimed to suffer mental health issues as a direct result of working rigid hours. And an overwhelming 90 per cent suffered from stress, 78 per cent from anxiety and 52 per cent from insomnia. Their conclusion was that the traditional "9-5" is inefficient and taking its toll. However, our unhappiness at work is not all our boss's fault. This view forms the backbone to McKee's book, namely that we have more control over our work-based happiness than we think.

She advises a reframing of your perception of your job; asking yourself how unhappy you really are and whether or not you have the power to change things. Not recognising the need to make these changes is what McKee calls "Boiling Frog Syndrome". She says: "If you put a frog in boiling water it will jump right out. Work is like a pot of water that is gradually getting warmer and we don't realise it. Unfortunately, a lot of people wait for it to become unbearable. They wait for that great big wake-up call: getting sick or getting fired."

"Overwork is overvalued," she pithily remarks. "People are lauded for getting into work at 8am and reading emails at midnight. Nobody can work like that, compromising sleep, health and family, without one day waking up and realising that they are emotionally depleted."

Prioritising money over health and happiness is one of the primary reasons for work burnout. Ambition can also fuel this. "Ambition is good until it isn't," she continues. "You need to be ambitious for what you want to get out of your job, not for what you think you should want." Men are more likely than women to fall into these traps. One recent survey showed that 80 per cent of women placed workplace happiness over salary, compared with 55 per cent of men. Disturbingly, this fits with what Saatchi & Saatchi chairman Kevin Roberts claimed last year - when he blamed women's "circular ambition to be happy" on the dearth of female CEOs.

Is happiness a barricade to success? McKee vehemently disagrees. "Happiness and success go hand-in-hand," she says, and then pointedly adds: "And happiness comes first."