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Measuring Happiness at Work

written by Shannon Polly 10 April 2014

Shannon Polly, MAPP '09, is a facilitator, speaker and coach in Washington, D.C. and the founder of a boutique consulting firm, Shannon Polly and Associates, where she applies positive psychology to leadership development. She also co-founded Positive Business DC (@positivebizdc) and she has facilitated resilience training for the U.S. Army. Full bio. Shannon's solo articles are here, her articles with Louisa Jewell here, and her articles with Genna Douglass here.

Have you ever tried speaking to a tough crowd? How about teaching positive psychology to engineers?

Jocelyn Davis

Jocelyn Davis

Jocelyn Davis has done just that at the University of Maryland for the last eight years. Davis was our recent speaker at the webinar series hosted by Positive Business DC. She and Kathryn Britton teach the required course, Managing Project Teams, to engineers becoming project managers. So she knows a tough audience.

During the webinar, Davis shared an example that often moves her students. Imagine that you had a high performance automobile, and you ran it for weeks or months in the red zone. (At this point she says her students open their eyes wide.) What would happen to the car? At some point it would no longer be a high performance car. You’d have to take it off the track. Students quickly grasp the analogy that you can burn out at work. You can’t have long hours with no breaks or no vacations and still be a high performer in your job.

Originally I thought her webinar for Positive Business DC’s last week, Happiness at Work: Measure it For Success, would mostly appeal to positive psychology practitioners who might need an assessment to use with clients. In the end, I discovered new things about the tool and practical ways to improve well-being at work that might be useful for anyone thinking about work, the place where we spend more time than anywhere else.

Why Does Happiness at Work Matter?

There are many reasons, but here are three that Davis mentioned:

  1. Well-being yields better organizational outcomes in terms of productivity, profitability, sales, creativity, customer service ratings, customer loyalty, retention of staff, and customers. Well-being at work decreases healthcare costs. Measurements are important to managing businesses. You can create a happier workplace, and you can measure the difference.
  2. Enjoying working together

       Enjoying working together

    For the people in the organization, focus on well-being makes high-quality work possible and sustainable for the long haul.
  3. When people experience work in more positive ways, there is a cascading effect that affects everyone they have contact with. If you are beaten down and working to burnout, you go home to friends and family and pass the expeirence along. It is contagious. If we can increase happiness at work, we can increase well-being at home and in the community.

Assessing Happiness at Work

Davis introduced the audience to the Happiness at Work survey created by Nic Marks after his work on the Happy Planet Index. The Happiness at Work is freely available online, so you can use it to get a checkup on your own happiness at work. There are comparative baselines available for the UK, the United States, and other countries, so you can see how your own happiness at work stacks up relative to other workers.

“We believe that happiness is a serious business. Research shows that happiness and wellbeing at work is the foundation of a productive and optimised organization and makes a real difference to a company’s bottom line.” ~ The Happiness at Work website

Nic Marks

Nic Marks

The survey is an empirically based set of 40 questions, which only takes 10-15 minutes to complete. You get your own results immediately. Unusual in the survey arena, your results are available for a year so that you can return, take the survey again, and see whether your happiness at work has changed. There was a person on our call who was surprised to receive a 2.6. This is a relatively low result, given that 5 is average out of a maximum of 10. She wondered what she could do about it. Davis suggested that she could decide on a plan of action and then take the survey again after a few months to see if she is making progress. To help her formulate her plan of action, every question in the survey points to research and specific actions, videos, articles, and books.

Results show that Brits assess their happiness slightly lower than Americans, which could be a sign of the American cultural optimism. We had composite results for our group, Positive Business DC. We were mostly in the top 40% with some outliers.

The survey assesses four different areas: personal resources, experience of work, functioning at work, and organizational systems. Each of those areas breaks down into four subcategories. You can see how you scored on each one relative to the average score of 5. I’ll cover two of the four areas here just to pique your interest. Then you can take the survey on your own to explore all four areas.



Personal Resources

Since I found myself lowest in this category, I took an interest in its four subcategories. Apparently having a low score on personal resources is often true of younger working mothers. People in upper management or in the 50-65 year old age range tend to have higher scores for personal resources at work.

  • Vitality: Are you healthy and energetic? Do you get time to take a break every 90 minutes?
  • Happiness: This equates to your personal happiness at work. It doesn’t mean that you are happy all the time. It is a net measurement.
  • Confidence: Do you have self-efficacy and the resilience to bounce back when you encounter obstacles?
  • Work-life balance: What state are you in as you walk in the door at home in the evening?

If you are not sleeping, not eating well, and not socializing with friends, your score here might be low. Davis shared that frequently women are lower in this category because they don’t have the time to take care of themselves. For thinking about vitality, she recommended a great book called The Power of Full Engagement.

Loehr and Schwartz talk about set up cycles of rest and recovery following periods of high stress. You can’t get up at 6, work from 7 to 7, skip lunch and breakfast and be at your best. You can find the book here. Having been through the training courses based on the book, I highly recommend it. It changed the way I thought about exercise on the road as well as what the real size of a ‘snack’ is. You can find out about the Human Performance Institute training course here.

High Functioning at Work

Performance at work is a result of four things that guide intrinsic motivation:

  • Strong work relationships: This is important for anyone who remembers the Gallup Q12. “Do you have a best friend at work?” is one of the best predictors of workplace well-being.
  • Mastery: Can you make progress every day? Can you succeed at your work?
  • Self expression: Can you be yourself? If you walked in tomorrow with three nose piercings would you be accepted?
  • Sense of control: Do you get feedback? Do you have the autonomy to select your own approach? If your answer is no for either question, can you ask for it?

For her engineering students, since it is a male-dominated profession, women might not find as many female friends at work.

Proud to be an Entrepreneur

I was heartened to learn that entrepreneurs are the happiest group that Davis has seen in her work with the survey. They get to make decisions that put them in charge of their lives and work. They get immediate feedback and make progress every day. If you aren’t an entrepreneur, Davis recommended trying to create autonomous elements elements in the job that you have.

Listen to the Webinar

If you want to hear what Jocelyn Davis had to say about happiness at work, listen to the Happiness at Work: Measure it for Success Recording. We wish you much happiness – at work and in life!


Happiness at Work Survey

Marks, N. (2011). The Happiness Manifesto. TEDx Danubia.

Davis, J. S. (2013). Positive psychology. In D. Lock & L. Scott (Eds.), Gower Handbook of People in Project Management. Gower.

Davis, J. S. (2010). Building the positive workplace: A preliminary report from the field. In P. A. Linley, S. Harrington, & N. Page (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Work (pp. 289-300). New York: Oxford University Press.

Loehr, J. & Schwartz, T. (2003). The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal. New York: Free Press.


Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Enjoying working together courtesy of askpang
Measuring courtesy of Gwenaël Piaser

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Cathy Parsons 10 April 2014 - 1:40 pm

Hey Shannon: What a fabulously wonderful article – so relevant to the work on engagement that I am supporting in health care. Thank you for making this so accessible and for illuminating the importance of happiness at work and the resources available. Hope you are well, Cathy Parsons, MAPP 2008

mark jones 10 April 2014 - 7:31 pm

Hi, There is a typo in paragraph 2, you can burn yourself out at work. A good article otherwise. Cheers.

Shannon Polly 10 April 2014 - 9:06 pm

Hi Cathy,

Thanks so much for your comment. I’m glad you found it relevant to the work you are doing. It stands to reason that the people who are responsible for others’ well-being should have it themselves!


Elaine O'Brien 13 April 2014 - 1:30 am

Thanks for this wonderful illumination on Positive Workplaces. It’s great seeing the spotlight on the contributions from Jocelyn Davis and Nic Marks, both whose rework I’ve long admired. I appreciate your sharing your self-reflections, Shannon, around the important Personal Resources, Shannon. Around vitality, research is indicating we must get up off our seats and moving, with more frequent breaks for positive energization, increased productivity, and the reduction of non-communicable diseases. It’s beneficial, necessary and enlivening. Thanks so much for the Loehr and Schwartz citation, and a valuable story. Cheers!

Shannon Polly 14 April 2014 - 8:48 am

Thanks for the catch, Mark.

Elaine, They do great work, don’t they? It’s great to celebrate them.
Even though I know the research around getting up and moving, I still don’t do it enough. Thank you for reinforcing it. You are a model of vitality and positive energy for us all!


Seph Fontane Pennock 27 April 2014 - 8:41 am

Thanks for this great article Shannon 🙂

The point you mentioned under ‘High Functioning at Work’ are alomst the same as the three pillars of self determination theory, namely:
-Autonomy (more common amongst entrepreneurs)

Personally, I think that relatedness is the most overlooked one.

I’m definitely going watch Donna’s webinar, thanks for sharing this resource!



Shannon Polly 28 April 2014 - 8:29 am

You are absolutely right, Seph. It also relates to Kahn’s theory of engagement. And relatedness (or the R in PERMA) is often overlooked.

Just a note, it was Jocelyn who did the webinar. Donna is our co-founder. Want to give credit where credit is due!


An article about Kahn’s theory

andy roberts 28 April 2014 - 12:32 am

Hi Shannon

Thanks for that great article. I worked for 12 years in corporate finance for kpmg and year after year we would fill in workplace engagement surveys similar to the gallup q12 . After that I did the MAPP course in the UK and studied yoga in India.

I totally get that happy and healthy employees are harder working, more creative and nicer to be around and I totally feel that looking at it from an autonomy, competence and relatedness perspective is a good way of looking at things but I still get the feeling we are trying to over measure and often measure the wrong thing.

This was my take on how we might start to think about checking out the vibrancy and wellbeing of employees in a different way – so asking them how they feel and checking out how they are physically rather than asking them how they think about their work situation. http://breathenews.wordpress.com/2014/04/22/can-you-love-your-job/

andy 🙂

Marie-Josee Shaar 2 May 2014 - 11:09 am

Great article all around, Shannon!

Loved the car analogy in particular. I had never quite heard it this way before, and found it more striking and effective than usual this time, so thank you!

BTW, I know of another great book that explains how to improve habits and performance. Ever heard of Smarts and Stamina?! 😉

Find it here: http://bit.ly/SaSBook

Shannon Polly 3 May 2014 - 7:00 pm


Great point about asking about their physicality first. I was doing a workshop recently where a participant asked how you could know you were stressed. And of course we said to look to where it manifested in your body.

And yes, Marie-Josee, I can vouch it is a great book! Glad you enjoyed the metaphor. All credit goes to Jocelyn for that one.


andy roberts 7 May 2014 - 8:06 pm

Hi everyone
Its the first time that I’ve used the happiness at work survey and I like it a lot. I can imagine using it with my clients. However it looks like a nicer bigger version of gallup q12 and i’m not sure of the veracity of these measures. They often tap into what people are thinking and not what they are feeling nor how they are physically – for example back pain, migraines .

The article starts with the analogy of a racing car, raced for weeks so that its parts wear away. I feel that in order to understand how a person is in the workplace you have to take some physical readings and marry these with psychometrics

Daniel Kahneman talks about the knowing self and the remembering self . For someone who has been slogging away at work for years its so difficult for them to be an objective reviewer of their own experience and fill in surveys which have great meaning.

We need to observe the whole person and actually this comes down to good one to one management and should not be replaced by one dimensional surveys

My most recent blogs on the subject http://breathenews.wordpress.com/2014/04/22/can-you-love-your-job/ and

love and light andy

Jocelyn 9 May 2014 - 1:59 pm

Thanks for all the great comments. Shannon wrote a wonderful article and has been a great collaborator on getting positive psychology science and applications into the workplace! So, Shannon, thank you so much for the opportunity to share the Happiness@Work Survey tool to PositiveBusinessDC subscribers!

Happiness@Work, subjective well-being at work by another name, is an empirically based tool that Nic Marks developed from research that underpins the National Accounts of Well-being work in the U.K. Interestingly, the U.K. has moved to supplement traditional measures of a country’s success (GDP) with a measure of subjective well-being. The U.S. Fed under Ben Bernake working with Daniel Kahneman are reported to be undertaking a similar initiative in the U.S.

As an early adopter of this particular tool, let me share that this is well-researched, just enough questions, flexible in application (we can add other statements for respondents to rate as well as open-ended questions customized for the particular client application), and very economical to use.

I really see the standard survey as the well-being/happiness at work equivalent of your annual physical. That is to say, it provides a good once over of

  • * How you are doing (Personal Resources)
  • * The overall state of your current work environment (Organisational System)
  • * Whether you are motivated at work (Functioning at Work)
  • * The emotional tone; level of engagement, flow and satisfaction with work; and your alignment with purpose at work (Experience of Work)

As Andy pointed out, a deeper dive may be warranted in some circumstances just as a referral to a specialist or referral for more blood work may be warranted based on the initial results of your annual physical.

In practice, we conduct interviews/surveys using a diagonal slice of the organization (cross functional and cross-level)to develop a contextual framework to understand the work environment, its known challenges and desires/goals for the future. Numbers without context are mostly just numbers, after all.

Debriefing survey results in context occurs at several levels: individual, team or work group, and for the organization overall. If we were to see individual results that indicated distress or deterioration, then we would inquire further and support the individual through tools ranging from self-help to selected education to coaching to referral to other resources if appropriate. The same process is used for team and organizational level feedback.

Being positive psychology oriented, we also look to see where there are strengths in individual, team and organizational results. For many people, teams and organizations, the best next steps are already available within the organization and the survey results with some deft interpretation and reporting can help everyone tap into and emulate the best practices.



Judy Krings 24 May 2014 - 8:51 am

I will share this with my MentorCoach Positive Psychology Coaching students, Shannon. Great resources. Many thanks!


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