What makes people happy or unhappy at work

QuestionI recently asked you what makes you happy or unhappy at work and got a lot of great answers. Thank you to everyone who responded!

Though small, unscientific and totally without academic merit, there are still a few things to learn from this mini-survey, and any managers reading this could stand to take a look at the answers. Here are some of my conclusions.

What makes people unhappy at work

Bad managers

  • “hypocritical & authoritarian leadership”
  • “passive-agressive bosses”
  • “my manager tells me what I do that upsets him, but never what I do that makes his job easier”
  • “I express my ideas regarding my own work and end up being labeled confrontational”
  • “No consistency/perseverance by the management”

Yep, bad bosses are hands down the most important reason why employees are unhappy at work.

Office politics/red tape

  • “Over-engineered processes that seem to be aimed at stopping people doing things rather than doing them”
  • “Small decisions / purchases requiring more time and money to get passed than they’d cost”
  • “The politics (’nuff said)”.

Red tape and office politics are silly, unfair and keep us from doing our job efficiently.

Bad work

  • “having something to do, that I view as nonsense/useless”
  • “Pointless, repetitive work”
  • “Being at work when there’s nothing to do (but I still have to “work??? full time)”

We want to do good work. Not pointless, repetitive make-work.

Bad information flow

  • “People not sharing useful information because they think it’s job security”
  • “Managers who don’t understand that information should flow two ways”
  • “Getting essentially all assignments through email. It would really help if I could have a discourse to understand better. email strips away a *LOT*!”.

We want to know what’s going on. It makes our jobs a leeeeetle easier :o)

What makes people happy at work

Here’s what makes many of us happy at work, in order of popularity:

Accomplishing something

  • “Noticing how my proposals produce positive change once implemented”
  • “Fixing problems and helping people”
  • “When I find a best-of-both solution to solve a problem between two stakeholders”.

By far the most common thing on the “happy” list. So to all the managers who think that happy people don’t work hard: You’ve got it exactly backwards. Most people are only happy, when they do good work and get great results.

Being appreciated

  • “receiving thanks for the job I’m doing”
  • “Recognition of my contributions to the organization”
  • “Sincere appreciation”
  • “Unconditional love” :o)

Appreciation is such a simple thing. It takes no time and costs no money, and yet many, many managers and workplaces neglect it.

Nice people and a good team

  • “good team members to work with, who really care about what we make”
  • “Funny colleagues”
  • “A smile in the morning”
  • “Working with good people (think pair programming) – working alone too long bums me out”
  • “Random acts of thoughtfulness no matter how minor”.

No surprises there :o)


  • “Being left alone to make things better than they are.”
  • “Having control of my time”
  • “The trust and respect of management and co-workers”.
  • “if just a moderate amount of freedom is at work; then I stay and happy employee”

You mean the best person to decide for me, is me? What a novel concept.


  • “completing a task involving a new skill”
  • “Always finding a way to learn or challenge myself”

People love learning and to use what they’ve learned to to even better work.


There are three general things I saw in the resposes: First of all: What makes people happy or unhappy varies wildly. Some people want co-workers around them, others want peace and quiet. Some people want clear guidelines, others want more freedom.

Secondly, people typically thought of more negatives than positives. It’s easier to come up with ten things you don’t like about your job than then things you like. Also, the negatives tend to be more specific (referring to specific situations), where the positives were more general. This gels perfectly with psychological research that shows that we have an easier time remembering past negative experiences.

And lastly: It’s not rocket surgery. The things it takes to make people happy at work can be introduced to just about any workplace anywhere.

Stay tuned for a follow-up question coming real soon.

14 thoughts on “What makes people happy or unhappy at work”

  1. great article!! I just started reading your blog and I have to say that you have a great deal of useful and informative information!! Thank you for sharing it with the rest of us.

  2. Hi, speaking of making people at work (un)happy – I work for a very, very large company in Japan and today during lunchbreak I noticed their filtering software started blocking your blog – it tells me it\’s \”Chat\” and I can\’t access it. Of course it doesn\’t block any free proxies, such as the one I\’m using now.

    The whole situation is just sad and ironic. Oh well, in japanese companies it doesn\’t matter if your happy or not anyway. Hell, it doesn\’t matter if you actually are productive or not either – all that matters is the amount of time spent in the office. Unpaid semi-mandatory overtime? You betcha!

  3. Thanks for the tip Tanuki – and good to see you here in spite of the block :o) Do you know what blocking service they use?

    And thanks for the info on the japanese work culture – do you think I should come over there and teach japanese managers a little happiness?

  4. Unfortunately I have no idea what list do they subscribe to – the page we get when we try to surf to a blocked site is totally non-descriptive. Even looking at it\’s source code reveals nothing, except opened tags and poor structure. Another funny thing – you know what other site was labeled as chat and blocked last week? solutionwatch.com :/

    Anyway, it would be great if you came here and did some lectures on happiness at work. Too bad no one would even invite you – in my company the general atmosphere is that if you\’re happy and relaxed at work you\’re doing something wrong, possibly slacking and you should immediately start telling everyone how busy and tired you are and perhaps stay in the office for another five or six hours…

    It\’s good that I\’m just an English teacher there so I can disregard most of the unwritten rules and happily read your blog in an act of defiance ;)

  5. I gotta say, it sounds bad. Is it like that everywhere, or are some companies changing? Is it the same in western companies operating in Japan? Do young people starting work really put up with this?

  6. Whoops, that\’s what you get for not double-checking your post before clicking the button – how did that \”do\” get in the first sentence? And why are all my apostrophes and quotation marks preceeded by a slash (or is that one backslash? I can never remember which is which). Oh well, that\’ll teach me to be more careful in the future :)

  7. Yes, it really is pretty bad. I\’m not sure about more \”progressive\” companies (IT industry comes to mind) or western ones as I have no experience working in either, but most traditional Japanese firms operate like that.

    Young people don&t really \”put up\” with it per se – conformity and obedience are ingrained in the culture and reinforced through the education system focused on mindless repetition, so they just don&t know any better.

    What it gives you is a team of mindless, uncreative and unhappy drones – contrary to the stereotype, Japanese workers are one of the least productive and effective ones I have ever seen, and this coming from an eastern European like me is saying something ;)

    To a westerner like me the situation is horrible, bordering on ridiculous. One example I like to cite in discussions like this is that many people in my office work longer than ATM machines (in Japan many ATMs do not operate 24/7) – somehow soulless boxes need more free time than living people…

  8. Pingback: Great comments
  9. when i typed in Google Search “what makes employees happy” i never thought i’ll get something!
    it really surprised me & highlited somepoints that is really interested.

    thanks for the wonderfull subject,,,

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