Why work matters to world happiness

By Robert Half on 17th March 2021


Why work matters to world happiness

It may feel odd to celebrate World Happiness Day amid COVID-19 but in many respects, the ongoing pandemic has made happiness at work more important than ever - particularly as the boundaries between work and home have become increasingly blurred over recent months due to lockdowns and the associated shift to remote work.

The United Nations founded the International Day of Happiness to recognize the relevance of happiness and wellbeing as universal goals. The truth is if we were all to take our happiness at work more seriously – regardless of whether that work is done in office-, home-based environments, or elsewhere - the world would arguably be a better place.

Unhappiness at work is an opportunity

In 2004, Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel prize-winning psychologist, released a paper introducing a new way of assessing people’s daily happiness. He called it the ‘day reconstruction methodology’. Kahneman asked a group of people what they did during a typical day and to list the amount of time they spent doing it. People responded largely as you would expect—they worked, socialized, ate, relaxed, watched TV, commuted, exercised, took care of the kids, etc. Kahneman then asked how much they enjoyed these activities.

The things that people most enjoyed were again not particularly surprising-- things like relationships, socializing, relaxing, and eating. But, perhaps most significantly, at the bottom two of the list were work and commuting.

When you think about happiness in that kind of context, it feels rather grim. We spend most of our waking hours at work, but for millions of people, it’s the least enjoyable thing in their lives. According to a recent Robert Half employer survey1, whilst 38% of c-suite respondents indicated that their teams have a positive attitude and 36% feel engaged and productive after six-plus months of remote working, equally telling is the 22% of employees who were deemed to be ‘uncommunicative’, the 20% who are ‘depressed/have low morale’ and the 19% who are ‘overworked/on the brink of burnout. The workplace mood is definitely mixed. Hence it comes as no surprise that monitoring workloads (35%) and assessing employee wellbeing and mental health (34%) are currently the top two challenges associated with managing ‘hybrid’ teams going into 2021.

So, it’s definitely challenging to ‘compartmentalize’ happiness at home and happiness at work. Often, if we’re unhappy at home, we’re unhappy at work – a scenario that’s likely to be exacerbated by lockdowns, where ‘home’ for many of us is ‘work’.

But if there’s one thing the business world teaches us, it’s this: for every lack, there is an opportunity. Indeed, if we’re miserable at work, then it’s also a chance for a massive improvement that will help us feel happier.

The case for happiness at work

Happiness is a serious business. We know that work stress can cause sickness and illness. When you’re happy at work, you’re less likely to get sick. You’re also more likely to have more energy for your private life.

There’s strong evidence that happiness at work can make us more successful, too. Not only more productive and innovative but also a better people leader.

It starts with a mirror

Becoming happier at work starts with self-awareness and reflecting on how we’re doing. For starters, ask yourself the following questions: 

  • What has gone well this last year in your work?
  • What is worse about your work?
  • What are you missing the most from before the pandemic?

Reflecting on the last year provides a starting point—a ‘snapshot’ of you at this moment. For a deeper analysis, consider trying the Friday One Happiness Test. It’s a five-minute test that provides personalized results on critical areas where you can make improvements.

Once you’ve reflected on your life and taken the quiz, it’s essential to recognize that there are some things that are simply out of your locus of control. How someone else treats you, for example, is not something you can directly control. But that might be a good reason to find new employment.

How to become happier

Here are five steps to being happier at work. An improvement in any of these areas is likely to make your experience of work better and more fulfilling.


It’s easier to do good work when we’re happy in the company of others. Regardless of whether these interpersonal connections happen in-person or virtually, workplaces which offer friendship, laughter, and a strong sense of belonging are more likely to have teams that encourage, support, and appreciate each other. Try making a new friend at work. You never know how that friendship will support you later.

Be fair

Now more so than ever, being treated with fairness and respect is fundamental to happier work. We flourish in spaces where organizations are responsive to our needs. Look for opportunities to be flexible with work and to support team members that need more flexibility – especially as the impacts of the pandemic continue to evolve.


Trusting others and sharing responsibilities is a great way to connect and grow. When we do work that plays well to our strengths, it’s also a chance to really unleash amazing potential. Find opportunities where you can be yourself and use your own judgment in completing tasks.


We’re happy with our work when we’re absorbed and progressing. Though this means pushing ourselves and stretching into new challenges, this is the sort of practice that keeps our work interesting. When we have the space to challenge each other and ourselves, we’re able to achieve great things.


Perhaps one of the most important aspects of work is feeling like you’re part of something bigger than yourself. Do you have pride in what you do? Our purpose at work can sustain us through difficult times. You’re more than a short-term financial goal. There’s a common idea that work is a way of accumulating the money you need so you can be happy in the future. Work hard now for happiness in the future. But think about it: is that really any way to live? When it comes to happiness at work, it’s possible that happiness leads to success rather than success leading to happiness.

Nic Marks is the CEO and founder of Friday Pulse.

1Robert Half commissioned research from 1,500 executives using an online data collection methodology during November 2020. This was comprised of 300 interviews each in Belgium, Brazil, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Respondents included General Managers, Chief Financial Officers and Chief Information Officers with hiring responsibilities across small (50-249 employees), medium (250-499) and large (500+ employees) from private, publicly listed, and public sector businesses across the five markets. Multiple responses were permitted to the question ‘After 6+ months of remote work, what are the three characteristics most evident across your team?’.  ‘Hybrid work’ was defined here as any combination of remote and office-based work.

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