We have talked about all the cool things many companies are doing to try and increase employee happiness, experience, and culture. Now we will get to the fun part. So what exactly improves employee happiness? Lucky for us, The Harvard Business Review and The Energy Project teamed up to figure it out and it boils down to four things.

The basic employee happiness stack consists of four needs:

  1. Physical
  2. Mental
  3. Emotional
  4. Spiritual well-being

Are video game cabinets and unlimited Red Bulls going to help your employees sleep better? Adopt healthier diets? Or adopt healthier, positive mental habits? Or feel like they are part of something larger than themselves at work? It is crucial that business and HR leaders make a firm distinction between “perks” and “wellness.”

Perks are great but impart only a fleeting and superficial happiness.

You might be thinking, “my company has a wellness program, so they care about my happiness!” Hopefully you are right– but the odds are against you (and they are 93 to 7). The reason? Only 7% of workplace wellness programs are “comprehensive”, according to a professor of public health at UNC Chapel Hill. At the risk of sounding cynical, the reason your company is encouraging you to get 10,000 steps is because you are getting really expensive to insure, and they want you to help them offset that cost. A reasonable enough request, considering you are lowering costs, while improving your quality of life simultaneously.

That said, the mental and emotional wellness component of a wellness program is almost always overlooked. When it is incorporated, it often comes in the form of an EAP– a reactive solution for problems that have already gone too far to be addressed directly by the company. We are just now beginning to see increased activity in corporate space for proactive mental and emotional wellness and stress resilience. This is shocking. Especially considering 83% of people consider work their greatest source of stress- and that ends up costing U.S. businesses over $300 billion annually.

Honestly, it is not an easy thing to accomplish. Training mental wellness and emotional intelligence is tough. Business culture (and Western culture) avoids feelings like the plague; it is not a subject taught at schools and poor mental health is stigmatized. The typical attitude towards mental health is: anything short of being suicidal is something you have just got to tough out.

There are a lot of ways to start training employees to be happy, and yes, it is training. Just like physical fitness requires going to the gym on the regular, mental fitness requires the same disciplined approach. You are not- nor will you ever- be able to make your entire workforce happy.

But if you can train just a few of your employees to regulate their emotions, focus better and control their thoughts, two awesome things will happen:

  1. Happiness is going to spread. It only takes a few positive forces to start to see change in your company. A massive, 20-year study on how social connections affect happiness found that a single unhappy connection increased the odds of personal unhappiness by 7%. But happy connections increased the odds of personal happiness by 9%. What is more – single happy encounters can increase personal happiness for up to a year. What?!?
  2. You will decrease your risk exposure to HSEs, or “Highly Stressed Employees.” Consider that 33% of your employees are already “extremely stressed,” then imagine what things are like for the top 1% of your most stressed-out employees. If you can help just a few of those most-stressed employees, the downstream effects will be tremendous.

This is a big reason you are seeing corporate mindfulness programs come online in companies like Google, Salesforce and Aetna. It is one thing to distribute a brochure or bring a trainer in the office once a quarter, it is another thing to cultivate a company culture of mental strength and resilience.

Dedication and focus are imperative to engender a happy work culture, but for the companies willing to dedicate the resources to it, the results are extraordinary:

  1. 46% reduction in cost due to employee turnover
  2. 83% of people in mindfulness-based training improved their cardiovascular health
  3. 12% increase in productivity and performance
  4. 19% reduction of cost due to sick leave
  5. 52 minutes more of sleep every night

Mental and physical wellness are intrinsically linked.

Many companies have wellness programs that focus on physical wellbeing, leveraging wellness platforms like Virgin Pulse or Limeaid and/or encourage activity with Fitbits or Misfits. But overall wellbeing comes from trading bad habits for healthy habits and choosing positive behaviors. Healthy habits start in the head, not on the wrist. That is why it is so important to consider the whole person’s wellbeing, because they are better together. A recent study shows that combining physical exercise and mindfulness reduce depression by a remarkable 40%. Enough said.

So what makes your employees really happy?

Top to bottom health. Once you have created a culture of health and happiness, feel free to bring in all the pinball machines and beer carts you want, but don not mistake a little Friday fun for true employee happiness.

This article originally appeared on the Whil blog here.


Ready to learn what to do after you capture feedback from your employees? You already know that engaged organizations are high-performance organizations, and that is exactly why you should integrate a continuous employee feedback program into your business processes. Get the Road Map to Better Employee Engagement to learn the proven, step-by-step directions for a successful engagement program so that you can begin to improve the entire employee experience at your company. Uncover the best practices including:

  1. When potential roadblocks may occur and why in your program;
  2. The ONE critical step you should never forget;
  3. WHO needs to take action to increase the experience (and outcomes).
Download the Road Map to Better Employee Engagement so that you can improve your employee experience journey, starting today.
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