Culture   //   February 2, 2022

Cracking the secret of a happy workplace isn’t just good for morale, it’s good for business

The Great Resignation trend is scrambling the American workplace at a record pace. Beleaguered business leaders are doling out dollars by the boatload to keep their employees on the job and to attract new ones. But that might not be the right approach.

A toxic corporate culture could be 10 times more powerful than compensation when it comes to predicting who will stay and who will go. MIT Sloan Management Review just published a study that analyzed 34 million employee profiles of workers who left their jobs for any reason between April and September 2021. It also looked at 1.4 million Glassdoor reviews from the past few years, including before the pandemic. The survey revealed that salaries rank 16th on a list of topics predicting employee turnover. Number one is toxic corporate culture.

The workplace becomes toxic, the Management Review argues, when there is a failure to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion; workers feel disrespected; unethical behavior occurs; or a cutthroat environment persists. Top study author and MIT Sloan senior lecturer Donald Sull notes that a toxic workplace leads to more people quitting than any other bad work issue.

“Autonomy, feedback, purpose, belonging, and being able to do engaging work are all things that employees look for at every level.”
Katina Sawyer, assistant professor of management at The George Washington University School of Business, and co-founder of Workr Beeing.

While the ‘Great Resignation’ is hitting blue-collar and white-collar sectors with equal force, according to the research, there are significant variations even within the same industry. For example, the study asserts that workers are more than twice as likely to quit JetBlue than Southwest Airlines. The report offers a handful of fixes for toxicity, such as corporate social events and work-from-home options. But oganizational psychology experts Katina Sawyer and Patricia Grabarek, believe they’ve discovered the secret to happiness in the working world. And they have a strategy: use the science of wellness to build thriving workplaces.

Sawyer and Grabarek who both have PhDs in Industrial/Organizational Psychology, co-founded and run the workplace culture consultancy Workr Beeing. “There is so much meaningful and useful science out there,” said Grabarek, “it’s really incredible how many common organizational wellness problems can be more easily tackled by applying it. Our job is to get it into the hands of people who can use it.”

Sawyer, who is also assistant professor of management at George Washington University School of Business, contends that the root causes of employees’ unhappiness are where a big push needs to be made by corporate leaders. “We see companies investing more in wellness programs and in initiatives for increasing diversity and inclusion. Yet, we find that companies are often unsure how to best spend the budgets,” she said.

Dedicating money to reduce the amount of work employees have on their plates, set boundaries on their working hours, and bring people together to connect as human beings are really effective ways to increase happiness at work, according to Sawyer.

Grabarek, who is a behavioral science manager at the firm Symend, advises employers to be on the lookout for cultures that are breeding grounds for the ‘Great Resignation’.

“If you are noticing that a lot of folks are unhappy at work, it’s probably a sign that you have a culture problem, instead of pinning the problem on individuals,” Grabarek says, adding, “While it is true that some folks are more likely to feel negative emotions or get into negative moods at work, a vast majority of people want to… enjoy the work they’re doing. What we think of as a ‘people problem’ is often actually a context problem.”

“If you are noticing that a lot of folks are unhappy at work, it’s probably a sign that you have a culture problem, instead of pinning the problem on individuals.”
Patricia Grabarek, co-founder at Workr Beeing and manager, Behavioral Science at Symend.

Sawyer believes people are similarly motivated by the same sorts of things at work. “Autonomy, feedback, purpose, belonging and being able to do engaging work are all things that employees look for at every level,” she said.

Creating a happy workplace is not only critical for keeping employees from quitting — it’s also good for profits.

Grabarek said there are countless large-scale studies with thousands of data points, that have evidence of happy cultures being good for business. “35% of the reason someone is a high performer is due to psychological safety. But, beyond ROI, it’s also related to employee well-being,” she added. “Employees are more committed, satisfied and engaged at work when they are in more psychologically safe work environments. So, [it] isn’t just a good business decision — it’s also the right thing to do.”

CommBox, a customer-services chatbot provider goes a step further. The Israeli-headquartered firm, which also has a branch in San Francisco, is urging companies to hire chief happiness officers (CHO). On its website it refers to studies which have shown that employee happiness initiatives have a high ROI when done right, “and the best way to do them right is to put someone — a CHO — at the wheel.”

Software giant Adobe doesn’t have a CHO, but it does have Gloria Chen. Her title is chief people officer and executive vice president of employee experience. Recently, Adobe captured the top spot on the list of 50 large companies with the happiest employees, compiled by the company review site Comparably.

“We’re fortunate to have… employees who are invested in our culture and community, and many of our best initiatives are those that are driven by employees themselves,” said Chen.