How to Boost Employee Happiness: 4 Strategies for HR and People Teams

Catherine Tansey
August 23, 2022
employee happiness, HR teams, People Operations, employee engagement

The “human capital” of a business, AKA its employees, was once considered just another resource. But today, great companies view employees as people first, and workers second.

To put it simply: Employees are the heart of any company. So, their happiness and wellbeing matters.

Yet even when it comes to top employers who treat their teams with respect and kindness, we tend to discuss employee happiness as it relates to on-the-job productivity or other business benefits.

Employee happiness becomes just another lever—something a company can adjust in order to achieve better business outcomes.

Sure, it’s true that happier employees are more productive, and they do produce better outcomes than their less happy counterparts. But, companies should focus on keeping employees happy as people, and not just as workers. 

As you rethink and refine your People Operations strategies to support employee happiness, consider the following 4 tips. 

Related content: How Desk Hoteling Can Improve Employee Happiness

1. Support employee mental health 

It’s hard to be happy at work if you’re struggling with mental health challenges. For companies committed to boosting employee happiness, providing robust mental health benefits is the first place to start. 

Employee assistance programs (EAPs) are an old-standby for most companies’ benefits packages. But EAPs typically only include a fixed-number of counseling or psychotherapy sessions with a mental health care professional.

Employees may want or need ongoing support, so consider expanding your org’s counseling coverage if possible. 

Supporting mental health in the workplace also means avoiding employee burnout. Professionally speaking, burnout results in reduced professional capacity and can heighten the risk for employee turnover. On the personal level, experiencing burnout is overwhelming and all-consuming. 

“Burnout is a symptom of long-term, untreated work-related stress with no outlet." 
- Jenna Kramsky, People Operations Manager at Eden

How to fight burnout: 

  • Ensure that appropriate mental health resources are available to everyone at your company.
  • Support a culture of open communication—regularly conduct pulse surveys, request anonymous feedback, include open-ended questions on reviews and questionnaires, and so on.
  • Work to create an environment of psychological safety.
  • Provide PTO benefits that employees can actually take advantage of (more on that in the next section).

What burned out employees usually need is a break—but without a supportive environment, they’re unlikely to ask for one. 

Related content: How to Insulate Your Team Against Burnout When Returning to Office

2. Authentically offer PTO (and lead by example)

Speaking of burnout and taking a break: What is your company’s culture and expectation when it comes to PTO?

If you want happy employees, it’s important to offer substantial PTO benefits—and build a culture that encourages employees to use them.

This much is clear: PTO is good for everyone.

From a business perspective, employees return recharged and refreshed, and maybe even feeling increased gratitude and goodwill toward their company for sanctioning this time away from work. 

For employees—when PTO is done right—they get an uninterrupted break from the stressors of their job. This can allow them to return to being present with their work, team, and organization. 

But if you want employees to take PTO, you must build a culture where it’s acceptable to do so. 

This starts with your leadership team. Leaders set the tone for the company, and should model desired values, behaviors, and actions for employees. 

How to create a culture that supports taking time off:

  • Consider taking a cue from France Implement a “right to disconnect” rule for employees and leaders taking PTO, which prevents team members from reaching out at all. 
  • Encourage employees to set boundaries: Consider following the advice of this Atlantic article and encourage employees to put an out of office message informing the recipient that, “Emails received between [this date] and [this date] will be deleted. Please send the email again after [this date].” 
  • Implement a “minimum PTO” rule to mandate employees take time off, like software company FullContact. Note that this rule should also be followed by management and leadership; PTO too often goes unused because, while it may be offered as a benefit, no one is actually taking it.

3. Communicate your vision for employees at the company

Research finds that employees rate “vision”—or lack thereof—as one of the most impactful elements of happiness at work. 

“People want to be able to see the future and know how they fit in,” writes Annie McKee in her Harvard Business Review article, “Being Happy at Work Matters.”

But all too often, managers see a future for employees at the company but fail to communicate this vision to the employees themselves.

Then, staring down employment at a company they don’t feel has their future in mind, workers look elsewhere. 

A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that 63 percent of employees who quit their jobs in 2021 did so because of “no opportunities for advancement.”

How to communicate vision in a way that boosts employee happiness: 

  • Set aside time for dedicated career-development conversationsoutside of traditional 1:1s or performance reviews. 
  • Create policies for managers to work with their direct reports on continued education, training in skill gaps, project work that will enable employees to meet their career goals, and so on. Having clear policies here is important—otherwise, skill development often falls to the wayside. 
  • Continually work with leadership to ensure that the overall company vision (as well as goals on a departmental level) are reinforced and reiterated, so that everyone is on the same page about the future of the company and their role within it. 

4. Get regular feedback from employees via surveys, and implement strategies based on what you learn

Like any relationship, the one between employee and employer hinges on the strength of their communication.

Ideally, employees already have regular check-ins with managers and receive ongoing feedback on their performance from managers and peers. 

But the feedback loop shouldn’t stop there; you’ll also want to gather feedback from employees with regular surveys.

Related content: How Gathering Feedback Will Improve Your Office Culture and Employee Experience

You can influence employee happiness through feedback and surveys by:

  • Regularly soliciting feedback: Even the act of conducting regular reviews and asking open-ended questions gives employees more opportunity to share what’s working and what isn’t.
  • Asking targeted questions: Make sure you are asking a mix of questions, from open-ended, long answer questions, to quick employee sentiment surveys, and so on. Want to find out if your employees actually feel supported when it comes to taking PTO, for example? Consider sending a hyper-specific anonymous questionnaire with varied question types on the subject. 
  • Making room for face-to-face feedback, too: Surveys and questionnaires are essential, but consider building policies around gathering face-to-face feedback as well. 
  • Considering the power dynamics: While face-to-face conversations (in-person or virtually!) are important to build rapport and trust in a relationship, employees may be more comfortable providing constructive feedback outside of the immediacy of a manager-employee relationship, where power dynamics are at play. So, consider implementing skip-level 1:1s, holding regular touch-base meetings between members of your HR and People Ops teams and other orgs, etc. 

Last but not least, create action plans based on what you’ve learned by:

  • Looking for trends across the data by employee demographic, department, organizational level, and manager.
  • Implementing new policies, organizational training, or employee experience initiatives, to respond to the data you’ve collected. 
  • Communicating to employees the changes you’re making and why. For example, a simple email that says, “Hi, Team! We want to take a minute to express how much we appreciated the feedback you provided in our last engagement survey. We learned a lot, and realized we need to improve on [X]. To do so, we’ll be implementing a new [strategy/initiative/training] on [date] so we can begin to address this. If you have other feedback, please let us know. We’d love to hear from you.”

Supporting happiness among the workforce will lead to better business outcomes, but not that’s the only reason to do it. Remember that employees are people first, and workers second, and it's important to build processes and offerings to support them holistically. In doing so, everyone will benefit.

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