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Keeping your employees – and yourself – happy

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HappinessJessica Pryce-Jones advises on how to spot the telltale signs of unhappiness, both in the workplace and in the HR profession, and suggests a few top tips to maintain a happy team.


The current economic downturn is placing increased pressure on many businesses, with the HR department often at the interface of the resulting challenges.

Whether it is the cutting of training budgets, restructuring a department, negotiating redundancies against the backdrop of ever stricter employment law, or dealing with pay demands to keep up with rising inflation, HR professionals are very much on the front line.

HR teams are often also faced with negotiating that tightrope between laying off people, while ensuring that those who keep their jobs remain productive and motivated. And sometimes, HR departments are also victims themselves with cuts in budgets and employee numbers.

“Being happy at work is essential to individual wellbeing and, ultimately, the success of every organisation.”

It’s not particularly surprising, therefore, that the fifth annual City & Guilds Happiness Index, published in June 2008, found that HR workers are among the least happy professions along with nurses, builders, IT and finance practitioners. The happiest employees were beauty therapists and hairdressers.

When employees are unhappy, they become less productive, less creative, less able to solve problems, more ill, and ultimately they quit their jobs. Being happy at work is essential to individual wellbeing and, ultimately, the success of every organisation.

In a sample of 499, our research found that people who are happy take an average of 1.5 days off a year, whereas the UK average is 8.4 days a year. People who are less happy, take over five days off per year.

Furthermore, any change management programmes that fail to have the support and active engagement of the HR department are often destined for failure. HR has a key role to play not only in developing change management programmes but in helping to ensure buy-in across the organisation.

So how can you detect declining morale and low levels of happiness in your HR department and what can be done about it?

In my view – and according to our research – there are five vital areas that have a major impact on employees’ happiness at work. These are a belief that one is good at one’s job, feels part of a team, has a variety of tasks, is treated fairly by one’s boss, and has a clear understanding of what is expected of them. If one starts to come up short against any of these criteria, then the wheels start to fall off.

Tell-tale signs might include a lack of confidence in one’s capabilities – a real dread about taking on new responsibilities, for example; more tiredness and less energy; being more of an introvert and not sharing ideas with one’s colleagues; less eye contact; more negative language; and a confusion as to what one’s role entails.

“HR specialists are so busy at sorting out other people’s problems across the organisation, that ironically they don’t have the time to deal with their own stuff.”

One or more of these signs should act as a warning shot that people need attention, support and recognition. Here are some suggestions on how to deal with these challenges and have a happier HR team.

1. HR people can have problems too! Just as a marriage counsellor finds they have no where to go when their marriage hits the rocks, similarly HR specialists are so busy at sorting out other people’s problems across the organisation, that ironically they don’t have the time to deal with their own stuff. So make sure that your HR team have people to go to either inside or outside your organisation when they face difficult times.

2. Network! Encourage your team members to operate as widely as possible across the organisation. In this way, the HR team can gain a good grasp of how their work affects others and feel part of a wider team. The HR team shouldn’t be just seen as the team brought in to manage pay, disputes, redundancy or employment contracts. They should be seen as an integral part of the organisation. To this end, front line business experience is invaluable.

3. Delegate. Allow employees to control, influence and decide as much as they can. Don’t be tempted to seize the reins. Make sure that everyone’s ideas are heard when developing strategy.

4. Give people variety. Don’t pigeon-hole people too early within one niche HR function. From recruitment and resourcing to providing input to an organisation’s learning and development strategy, to managing people and ensuring that they have the necessary employment protection, there are so many facets to HR. Make sure that people have the opportunity to experience all of these.

5. There are some HR employees, however, whose strengths are in a specific area and there is little point in expending activities you are not good at – a deflating experience! Make sure that strengths are recognised and accommodated. It is important to be attuned to what people are best at, so this can be reflected in their job role.

6. Be positive. Encourage not discourage. Remember that people respond much better to positive rather than negative feedback: 3:1 is thought to be the optimal ratio here.

7. Thank people when they have done something tough – for example, if they have had to co-ordinate a raft of redundancies or have told an employee that they will not be getting that promotion.

8. Communicate your strategy and support team members as much as possible. Make sure that HR employees understand the importance of what they do. Make sure they know what is expected of them, your goals for the HR function, and how it delivers real value within the organisation.

9. Encourage creativity. Don’t let your team get overwhelmed with processes and procedures. When in discussions with training providers or company employees, for example, get your team to think creatively about how they can add value. Encourage them to be curious, to challenge the status quo, and to take risks.

HR should be one of the most exciting and rewarding areas in which to work within an organisation, where you can have a direct impact on everything and everyone around you. By being well led and well managed, there’s no reason why HR professionals should not be up there with hairdressers and beauticians in the happiness stakes.


Jessica Pryce-Jones is joint founder and a partner at iOpener, a consultancy that helps organisations to implement strategy and deliver key results by focusing on happiness at work

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