Employee engagement vs. happiness at work – what should companies focus on?

I met a manager recently who claimed in no uncertain terms that companies should forget all about employee happiness and focus only on engagement.  He argued that people can be happy at work without performing well, whereas employee engagement leads directly to better performance.

I’ve actually heard this claim a few times recently, but it is still wrong. In this article we’ll look at why.

But first let’s define the two terms. Both can be defined in many different ways, which will confuse any discussion, so here are the definitions I will base my argument on.

This is the first result that comes up when you google “employee engagement definition”:

Employee engagement is the extent to which employees feel passionate about their jobs, are committed to the organization, and put discretionary effort into their work.

And this is the definition of happiness at work that we use:

Happiness at work is the extent to which employees feel good about their jobs.

Both are clearly emotional at their core (the word “feel” appears in both) but the key difference is that engagement is more about the work and less about the person. It’s not really about how you feel in general, it’s how passionate you feel about your job, how committed you are to the workplace and how much extra effort you put in.

Happiness at work, as we define it, is how work makes you feel more broadly. It’s not about feeling good every second of every work day, but it is about experiencing mostly positive feelings about your job.

Just to make it clear: We think employee engagement is a useful concept and we are not arguing against it. We just want to argue that of the two, it is much more effective for a company to focus on making their employees happy than on making them engaged. Here are the four main reasons why.

1: Happiness is easier to sell to employees

Whether you’re looking to create employee happiness or engagement, you need your employees to be active partners in the process. This is not something you can do to them without their active and willing participation or (even worse) against their will.

Employee engagement, being directly related to commitment and effort, is a very easy sell to managers and companies. Every manager wants employees who are passionate about their work and go above and beyond to do a better job.

But seen from the employee side, it’s a much harder sell. When a manager states that they want their employees to “be more engaged in their work” or “give more discretionary effort” it can easily come off as if they are simply demanding more passion and work from people, without giving anything back.

On the other hand, when a manager sets a  goal to create a happy workplace, the benefits are immediately clear to employees and it’s much easier to engage them in the process.

Ironically, happiness can be a harder sell towards managers, many of whom are skeptical of “all that happiness crap”. This video covers their most common objections and why they’re wrong:

2: Engagement without happiness is unsustainable

How engaged can someone really be if they’re unhappy at work?

This happens. One of our International Partners, Sheona McGraw of Cloud 9 to 5 in Canada has seen it first hand:

Having worked in a number of charities, non-profit orgs and social enterprises, I can tell you that most of these employees are passionate and committed about their org’s cause but unfortunately a lot of the orgs don’t have a very happy work environment and it’s not uncommon at all to find super engaged yet super unhappy employees working in these orgs.

This is something I talk a lot about in my discussions with potential clients. I myself have been in this circumstance a number of times, being super engaged but miserable. And while I performed satisfactorily, had I been happy I would have blown the job out of the water.

A person can be incredibly passionate about their work and totally committed to the workplace, but still be miserable at work. I’ve seen this happen for instance when people are treated badly by their coworkers or manager or when they can’t do their job in a way that satisfies their own professional standards.

In this case, two things can happen:

  1. The employee’s unhappiness can leech away any feeling of engagement, leaving the person not caring about their work.
  2. Or, even worse, the person remains engaged and unhappy – which leads to stress and burnout.

So even if you want an engaged workforce, you still need to focus on making them happy because engagement without happiness is not sustainable.

3: Ultimately, it’s about performance – and happiness drives better performance

As I stated above, some fans of engagement argue that it matters more because it directly drives effort and performance. They also argue that employees can be happy but not productive. Both of these arguments reveal a poor knowledge of the research in happiness at work.

Sure, engagement leads to better performance – but given the definition above that includes commitment and extra effort, that’s almost a tautology.

Furthermore, we know from a large amount of research, that happy employees perform much better. Ed Diener, one of the world’s leading happiness researchers summed it up like this:

In the workplace we know that happiness causes more-productive and more-creative workers.

If you know academics, you know how careful they are about using the word “causes.” In this case, we know that happiness at work causes higher:

  • Productivity – happy people get more work done with the same resources.
  • Creativity – feeling good makes your mind more able to think of new ideas and approaches.
  • Intrinsic motivation – happy people don’t need constant external motivators like bonuses or threats; they want to do good work.
  • Loyalty – happy employees care about the company and stay longer in their jobs.
  • Discretionary effort – employees who like their jobs go above and beyond for the customers, their co-workers and the workplace.

So employee happiness has been shown to directly cause increased performance.

4: Happiness causes engagement

You’ll notice that both loyalty and discretionary effort were part of the definition of engagement that we presented above.

Given that (as we saw in the previous section) happy employees are more loyal and are more likely to go the extra mile, it’s clear that happiness  doesn’t only cause better performance – happiness also directly causes engagement.

Of course, the effects are circular and engagement and happiness will cause each other. But given the results above as well as the fact that engagement cannot last in the absence of happiness, it seems clear to me that happiness causes engagement more than engagement causes happiness.

Gallup does a lot of great work on employee engagement and their Q12 survey is one of my favorite metrics. They also acknowledge that many factors play into engagement, including happiness / well-being, writing:

Leaders have to think about everything from culture to well-being to purpose and meaning — and make it all come to life in a personalized way for employees.

The upshot

Engagement is a great concept but ignoring employee happiness in the pursuit of engagement makes no sense.

At the very least, sustainable engagement requires happiness at work, meaning you can’t ignore the happiness aspect.

When do people feel “passionate about their work, committed to the workplace and give discretionary effort?” When they’re happy at work!

So if you want engaged employees, focus on making them happy and engagement will follow.

Related posts

2 thoughts on “Employee engagement vs. happiness at work – what should companies focus on?”

  1. I’m a firm believer that engagement will follow happiness. Both my husband and I have experienced this over and over again. Without happiness, engagement can be painful, which leads to less happiness, which leads to even more pain.

  2. You’re absolutely right! I myself experience what it is to be committed and engaged but unhappy and that led me to burnout. I was putting a lot of effort and long hours to do a remarkable job to feel proud and be recognized. However, I experienced very little recognition and more work was sent my way. The day I got laid off was the best day of my life. Now, I approach my job in a totally different way, learning about happiness at work and positive psychology has changed my life and I’m committed to spread the word. Thank you for your article!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.