What Makes Employees Happy and Productive? It’s Really Pretty Basic

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Jun 11, 2014

It seems as though we are consistently seeing data that show decreasing levels of employee engagement and feelings of fulfillment at work.

This data can be, and has been, attributed to many factors, such as a lean post-recession workforce, an increasingly competitive talent landscape, and the uber-connected, uber-informed and uber-on business world in which we operate.

I’d agree that all of these can create barriers to an engaged workforce, or challenge an already highly engaged workforce. There’s also data indicating (as I discussed in my post on what Millennials look for in a great workplace) that high amounts of stress, feelings of low-engagement or no work-life balance are not as significant as we may think.

Insights into Why You Hate Work

On a positive note, there is data that suggest workplaces are doing much to negate issues of engagement and work-life balance, but much of this research comes from companies classified as “Best Workplaces,” and considering the frequency of content reporting low levels of engagement, trust, and happiness, such companies may be few and far between.

Ultimately, we can only take data at face value.

The real importance of looking at such workplace statistics is to inform ourselves and build our “bigger picture” – know what’s out there, know what’s conflicting, and create solutions and approaches that are right for our own people, culture and strategic goals.

Some data I recently found interesting comes from an article published in The New York Times titled Why You Hate Work, which included research from The Energy Project, an organization that aims to increase employee engagement and sustainable performance for organizations and their leaders.

The article, by The Energy Company’s CEO Tony Schwartz and consultant Christine Porath, discusses how “the way we’re working isn’t working” and that it’s increasing common for both middle managers and top executives to feel overwhelmed and disengaged.

What makes employees productive and happy?

In an effort to understand what’s impacting people’s engagement and productivity at work, The Energy Project partnered with The Harvard Business Review to survey 12,000 plus mostly white-collar employees across a range of industries and organizations. They found that employees are considerably more productive and engaged when they have the opportunity to:

  • Regularly renew and recharge at work;
  • Feel valued and appreciated for their contributions;
  • Focus in an absorbed way on their most important tasks; and
  • Do more of what they do best and enjoy most, as well as feeling connected to a higher purpose at work.

The study attributed these four areas to four core needs: physical, emotional, mental, and

Mental and spiritual needs

In terms of the core physical need at work, The Energy Project’s study determined that employees who take breaks every 90 minutes find themselves with a 30 percent higher level of focus than those who take one or no breaks during the day. These employees also report a 50 percent greater capacity to think creatively and a 46 percent higher level of health and well-being.

Also interesting, is that when employees feel encouraged by their supervisor to take breaks, their likelihood to stay with any given company increases by nearly 100 percent. For the core emotional need, feeling cared for by one’s supervisor has the biggest impact. Employees who noted having more supportive supervisors were 67 percent more engaged.

The core mental need? Respondents that were able to focus on one task at a time reported being 50 percent more engaged (although only 20 percent of respondents reported being able to do this). Comparably, just one-third of respondents reported being able to effectively prioritize their tasks, but those who did were 1.6 times better able to focus on one thing at a time.

In regards to the core spiritual need, the Energy Project’s research found that employees who derive meaning and significance from their work reported 1.7 times higher job satisfaction and were 1.4 times more engaged at work. In a nutshell, this data show that how employees feel at work has a huge impact on their engagement and productivity.

Not an all-or-nothing proposition

One last valuable nugget of data to note from this study is that when employees have even just one of the core needs discussed above met, versus none, all variables of their performance improve (from engagement, to loyalty, job satisfaction, positive energy at work, and lower perceived levels of stress).

This is good incentive for organizations to work on things one step at a time. It clearly isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition.

Positive changes in employee engagement don’t necessarily happen from massive culture changes or vast implementation of new programs. Baby steps are OK folks, and the more core needs are met, the more positive the impact!

This originally appeared on China Gorman’s blog at

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