Debunking Misconceptions About Happiness at Work

by Daniel B. Griffith, JD, SPHR, SHRM-SCP

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Are employers responsible for employees’ happiness? It’s an important question for higher education.

Gallop is releasing Blind Spot: The Global Rise of Unhappiness and How Leaders Missed Itand notes that unhappiness, measured by the five negative experiences of “anger, stress, sadness, physical pain, and worry,” has increased globally over the past decade, and not simply because of the pandemic. The recent CUPA-HR 2022 Higher Education Employee Retention Survey doesn’t measure unhappiness, but we can imagine varying levels of unhappiness contributing to decisions to leave. Over half of respondents report they will seek new employment opportunities in the next year, with 76% of these reporting better pay as the main reason. Other reasons include a desire for remote work opportunities, a more flexible schedule, and a promotion. Regarding remote work, 71% believe their work can be done remotely while 63% report still being required to work mostly or completely on-site. Excessive workload concerns were also noted, as 63% reported they took on more responsibilities after other employees left and 73% reported the same as the result of the pandemic.

While employers can look at data and implement changes that are responsive to increasing employee contentment and happiness, they have no actual obligation to do so. The advent of the modern workplace where employers seek to address employee well-being, mental health, engagement and, yes, happiness, fostered a misconception that employers are responsible for employees’ happiness and employees are owed this in exchange for their effort. Let’s not be swayed by false and potentially harmful notions about what is required to foster positive workplaces and experiences. Consider these misconceptions to avoid perpetuating them further:

Misconception 1: We need employees who are passionate about their work. The familiar expression, “do what you love, and the money will follow” can be exploitative. Sarah Jaffe, author of Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Aloneargues this “fable” has been perpetuated by large corporations beginning in the 1970s following the transition from a manufacturing economy “in order to pay workers less and give them fewer benefits.” Erin Cech, author of The Trouble with Passion: How Searching for Fulfillment at Work Fosters Inequality, States that “recommending that career aspirants do what they love and figure out the ’employment stuff’ later… ignores the structural obstacles to economic success that many face, and blames career aspirants if they cannot overcome those obstacles.” This is exploitative when employers hire “workers who find their jobs fulfilling, precisely because passionate employees often provide additional uncompensated labor.”

This can occur in higher education when employers promote mission-driven work, telling employees that “the reward is helping students” without meaningfully addressing compensation, work conditions, and workload disparities. At a macro-level, leaders can more assertively advocate for such changes. At a micro-level, they can dispense with assumptions about “passion” as an essential requirement and focus instead on employees’ ability to perform their jobs and support them along the way. This includes avoiding inane interview questions like “Why do you want to work here?” and “Where do you see yourself in five years?” which often force applicants to fake passion when the reality is they need a job and a means for supporting their lives and families before they can begin to think about feeding their passion.

Misconception 2: We must help employees bring their whole selves to work. There is a need for authenticity and vulnerability in workplace relationships, especially when discussing thorny issues like workplace inequities, bullying, and racism. Yet this is not remotely possible without appropriate pre-conditions like a strong sense of trust in the organization, psychological safety, and freedom from fear of retribution. Absent these, it is unrealistic to expect individuals to open themselves up to reveal otherwise hidden aspects of their character, viewpoints, or personal lives.

When used to encourage employees to explain job struggles or deficits, when they already feel guarded under threat of discipline, this notion could violate policies involving the job-relatedness of such inquiries. It can also lead to unintended consequences as employees overshare aspects of their lives, bad habits, dark secrets, rocky pasts, unsolicited political opinions, and character best left unexpressed. Further, while the “whole self” message may appeal to gregarious, outspoken, extroverted types, and employees who consider work as inseparable from all other aspects of their identity (whether that is healthy or not), it may be met with skepticism by introverted, reserved types, or individuals for whom “a job is a job” they can happily leave at the end of the day. It is especially harmful to employees in underrepresented groups who perceive great risk in presenting their authentic selves that aren’t in line with majority cultural norms.

Misconception 3: We need more parties. Happiness and “fun” shouldn’t be forced. Employees have become increasingly weary of employer efforts to organize social events that require, implicitly or explicitly, employees to show up to connect with one another. Employers have miscalculated the willingness and eagerness of employees to return to the physical office following the pandemic, so they are in no mood to celebrate that fact. Whether a large celebration or smaller gatherings, such as birthdays and work anniversaries, organized social events that aren’t mindful of employee preferences lead employees to feel they must force a smile and attend or be perceived as not being team players. They also fail to recognize employees’ need for balance and living their personal lives, particularly when they are experiencing significant family, health, and financial challenges. They may also foster resentments when called to participate in gatherings that have no direct correlation to performing their jobs.

Misconception 4: We must sell our organization as a happy place. Employers should promote themselves to prospective employees based on the value and career opportunities they offer. Promotion of their unique brand and how working there will benefit prospective employees should be based on objective, factual assessments that explain how employees will benefit from working there and how prospective employees will benefit the organization through their service. It is problematic when brand propositions promote employers as “fast-paced,” “dynamic,” “fun,” “engaging,” “high energy,” or similar terms, or, as noted above, as “a place where you can bring your whole self.” Such terms and phrases aren’t particularly meaningful regarding what the organization values ​​or expects from employees. When incorporated in job postings, they send unfortunate messages about the specific personality types sought in candidates. This may appeal to extroverts and “doers” and suggest the need for workers who are constantly “on the go,” but it devalues ​​expectations for strategic thinking, planning, and the more moderate “pace” that such activities require. It also discourages more introverted, contemplative personality types, not to mention specific protected classes such as people with disabilities and older workers who may interpret such expectations as favoring younger, fully able-bodied employees. Finally, work cultures described this way sound harried and frenetic rather than ordered and well managed. It is also disingenuous to give job candidates the false impression that they won’t experience the drudgery, tedium, and boredom that comes with most jobs.

Responsible employers concerned about retention don’t want their employees to be unhappy, lacking in passion, or constrained from being their “whole selves.” Yet, they recognize such matters are out of their direct control and that the best they can do is create conditions where happiness at work is possible, just not guaranteed.


Disclaimer: HigherEdJobs encourages free discourse and expression of issues while striving for accurate presentation to our audience. A guest opinion serves as an avenue to address and explore important topics, for authors to impart their expertise to our higher education audience and to challenge readers to consider points of view that could be outside of their comfort zone. The viewpoints, beliefs, or opinions expressed in the above piece are those of the author(s) and do not imply endorsement by HigherEdJobs.

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