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What makes a happy worker happy?

It's not just perks and flexibility; it takes attitude, work and good management

Rex Huppke

April 15, 2013

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The workplace advice columnist has only one natural enemy: the happy worker (Laborius contentus).

This rare — some might say mythical — creature poses a threat to anyone who dispenses workplace-improvement tips for a living. But rather than cower, I've decided to look into the belly of the beast and figure out what makes these "happy people" tick.

When it comes to fostering office happiness, many companies focus on workplace dynamics, everything from perks such as in-house gyms or free snacks to flexible scheduling and work-from-home opportunities.

These are good ideas. But experts on workplace happiness say amenities and accommodations are largely window dressing. What matters most are an individual's outlook and a company's skill at putting that person in the right position.

New York-based executive coach Helen Mumford Sole said people who are happy at work tend to be happy in general, and people who are happy in general tend to be optimists.

"Optimistic people are happier at work because they believe work is going to throw up better outcomes, whether it's a sales call or a meeting with the boss," she said. "Optimistic people just have a better time of it. The cynics, the fact of the matter is, they are less happy. Being like that makes you less happy."

Thus the workplace gripers tend to have a transmittable attitude that can bring others down.

I shy away from promoting workplace peppiness, so I must note that Sole is not advocating the mere hanging of inspirational posters or adopting of rosy outlooks.

"Feeling lucky, feeling optimistic, those are actual behaviors," she said. "It's a behavior that you can learn and a behavior that you can unlearn."

If you're miserable in your life outside work, you're likely going to be unhappy at work — you'll find negative aspects of your job that fit into your worldview. So Sole suggests "cultivating happiness" in other areas of your life.

And that takes effort. Nobody's going to read a book or listen to a motivational speaker and suddenly be transformed. But if you can find greater contentment in life and a more optimistic sense of the future, that will help your work life.

"People who are really happy, they either find a way to make their job palatable or they find a way out," Sole said. "It has to do with the behaviors that they habituate."

The worker controls his or her mindset. But the company can help out by managing well.

Sole described the invigorating feeling a worker gets when "in the zone."

"It happens where your skill level is perfectly matched for the task that you have," she said. "If it's too difficult, you feel anxious, and if it's too easy, you feel bored."

It's like a quarterback who starts to see the football game moving more slowly than it is — Sole says the happiest workers are the ones able to frequently reach this state.

Companies can facilitate these moments by — here's a shocker — talking to employees about what tasks seem to line up best with their skills and confidences.

"When I talk to companies about happiness, I talk about appraisals and talent management and how much more useful it would be to have a conversation with employees about where they find these moments," Sole said. "Why don't we try to manage that better?"

Some places do, and many of those wind up on the Chicago Tribune's annual list of the city's Top 100 Workplaces. To locate a real, live happy worker, I went to a company on a previous list — marketing agency Upshot — and found Cody Gough.

I first put the 28-year-old social media coordinator through a rigorous test to confirm that he is, in fact, happy. (That test involved me asking whether he's happy and him saying, "Yes.")

Convinced, I asked, "Why?"

"I like the idea that I can come to work, have ideas and input on things and have that be listened to," he said. "I'm able to be a person who's not just executing other people's decisions, but a person who's actually brainstorming those decisions and making them happen."

Gough said he considers himself a generally happy person and believes that enhances his work experience — he tends to find more positives than negatives on the job.

We all have to take some responsibility to get our minds right if a pleasurable work life is what we're after. And we all need help from our employers, who hopefully can recognize that you get the most out of people when you put them in positions that breed contentment.

That's hard, so I'm not worried about running out of unhappy workers who need advice.

But if workplace happiness is a reasonable thing to want, then it's certainly a sensible goal to pursue.

If you're happy and think your company belongs on Chicago's Top Workplaces list, we are asking for your nominations. They're open to all employers, including nonprofits, in the greater Chicago area with at least 100 workers.

These companies and others that agree to participate will disseminate to employees an easy-to-complete, confidential survey developed by the Tribune's research partner, WorkplaceDynamics LLP, which will calculate the list of top workplaces in the Chicago area. Top performers will be recognized in the report, in an online directory and at a special Tribune-sponsored event.

There is no fee to participate, and every organization that takes part will receive feedback about its workplace. To nominate a firm, go to chicagotribune.com/topworkplaces or call 312-878-7356.

TALK TO REX: Ask workplace questions — anonymously or by name — and share stories with Rex Huppke at ijustworkhere@tribune.com, like Rex on Facebook at facebook.com/rexworkshere, and find more at chicagotribune.com/ijustworkhere.