Is a Happy Worker Always a Productive Worker?

Is a happy worker always a productive worker? For many years, organizational scientists and practitioners have shared an interest in the belief that employees who are happy with their jobs demonstrate higher levels of job-related performance behavior than do employees who are dissatisfied with their employment. This assumption from researchers Russell Cropanzano and Thomas A. Wright points to a positive causal relationship between employee happiness, that is, the level of job satisfaction that characterizes employee experience, and worker productivity. This seems logical. However, despite considerable research and empirical support for the assumption that a happy worker equals a productive worker, this premise remains ambiguous.

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Numerous organizational scientists continue to express their skepticism concerning the presumed relationship between employee happiness and job performance. To address this situation, researchers Cropanzano and Wright have conceptualized happiness in a manner that equates it with job satisfaction, that is, as the presence of “positive affect” and the absence of “negative affect,” such the absence of emotional exhaustion and the presence of psychological well-being.

Other research from Thomas A. Wright and colleagues stated that organizational scientists have long recognized the importance of psychological well-being. It is also widely regarded in terms that relate to the effectiveness of an employee’s psychological and social functioning. A two-year longitudinal study was conducted by Thomas Wright and colleagues in 2002, which examined the relationship and effects of psychological well-being, job satisfaction and dispositional affect. Study results provided support for the hypothesis that psychological well-being can be positively related to job performance.

Another study conducted by Toon W. Taris and Paul J.G. Schreurs in 2009 tested the happy-productive worker hypothesis. The methodology equated job satisfaction with happiness and measured this factor, as well as emotional exhaustion. Using data garnered from 66 Dutch home care organizations, the researchers evaluated a variety of factors, which included levels of control, support, emotional satisfaction and exhaustion and evaluated them according to how they related to organizational performance. The Taros and Schreurs’ analysis partially confirmed the hypothesis, particularly about high levels of emotional exhaustion having a statistically significant relationship to low organizational performance. The researchers concluded that these study findings underscore the importance of improving employee job satisfaction and well-being.

Cropanzano and Wright pointed out that happy and unhappy individuals experiencing vastly different psychological situations. Unhappy individuals are generally sensitive to threats associated with their work environments, and they tend to be defensive and cautious in their relationships with co-workers, as well as less optimistic and less confident. Happy workers, on the other hand, demonstrate more sensitivity to opportunities, are more outgoing, and demonstrate a high level of optimism and confidence. As this indicates, the psychological condition of being unhappy is a factor in lowering the performance level of these individuals. Cropanzano and Wright stated that when something is rare, such as happiness in the workplace, people are more sensitive to signs that it is threatened. On the other hand, when individuals feel secure and enjoy a higher level of job satisfaction, they can afford to be less involved with worry and are, therefore, more sensitive to positive events.

The extensive review of literature provided by researchers Cropanzano and Wright proposed that the ambiguous research findings investigating the happy-productive workers’ hypothesis result in a variety of ways in which happiness has been conceptualized. These researchers offered and described a comprehensive framework that has the potential to improve the categorization and measure of happiness. They called for additional research to look at the role of happiness and unhappiness related to predictions of performance. They concluded that numerous prominent researchers working in the field of occupational health have estimated that only a minority of American workers can be considered as truly happy.

Perhaps something else to consider is research from Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer discussed in a 2011 Harvard Business Review article, which talked about the “progress principle.” Their research concluded that “of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run. Whether they are trying to solve a major scientific mystery or simply produce a high-quality product or service, everyday progress — even a small win — can make all the difference in how they feel and perform.”