Raising the bar on happiness at work

When an advisory firm employee is unhappy, the adviser faces a challenge

May 7, 2019 @ 12:01 pm

By Joni Youngwirth

Recently, a brief article in the New York Times caught my eye: "A Deceptively Simple Way to Find More Happiness at Work" by Tim Herrera. We all want to be happier at work, right? Alas, there is a reason it is called work. We make a deal to be paid in exchange for using our time and energy doing tasks and fulfilling responsibilities. But that arrangement may lose its appeal over time, especially for those who don't get the opportunity to do work that is meaningful to them.

To be sure, individuals vary regarding how much happiness they expect from their jobs. Some may even be willing to put up with a ho-hum work life. But I'm not sure ho-hum will cut it going forward. My own perception is that the bar on happiness has been raised.

(More: Best Places to Work for Financial Advisers: The research and the data)

Happy adviser, happy employee?

In our industry, many advisers hire staff to complete tasks and take on responsibilities that the advisers are just not excited about. Whether it's marketing, office management, paraplanning or investment management, firms hire people who do those jobs better and with greater "happiness" than the adviser would have. The result? The adviser's own happiness at work is maintained.

(More: What these advisers do when they have too many clients knocking on the door)

But what does this mean for employees' long-term work satisfaction? It's not likely those employees can eventually hire others to fulfill the responsibilities they dislike. As a result, staff members could end up doing enough work that they don't enjoy that it overshadows those things they do like. Ultimately, this imbalance creates an unhealthy situation for the employees and for the firm.

When an employee is unhappy, the adviser faces a challenge. The knee-jerk reaction could be to change something — anything — to make the pain go away. If only it were that easy!

More difficult is figuring out what to change while still getting the necessary tasks completed. What creates happiness for one employee may cause a feeling of dread in another. A broad-brush solution may not help. Furthermore, happiness is often related to an individual's personal makeup, including thoughts and behaviors, rather than to the specific circumstances of the work itself.

So what's the solution? Let's look at the research.

The research on happiness

The Mayo Clinic has been home to research focusing on happiness in the workplace. Among the groups studied are physicians. If doctors don't get enough time to do work they find most meaningful, they are at risk for burnout.

The good news is that spending even 20% of their time doing what they love can avoid that burnout. And here's where it gets really interesting: If doctors spent 50% of their time doing work they loved, the burnout rate was only marginally changed.

If this finding holds true across professions, one can conclude that you neither have to change everything nor strive to ensure that employees spend 100% of their time doing what they love. The more the better, of course. But at a minimum, employees should spend at least some time doing what they find most meaningful.

(More: 4 reasons you keep losing your best employees)

A simple exercise

Which brings me back to that New York Times piece. Shifting happiness at work rests, in part, on clarity about which aspects of employees' work they love or loathe. To gain this clarity, Mr. Herrera proposes a simple exercise: Have staffers carry around a notebook for a week with two columns marked "love" and "loathe," so they can note which tasks or responsibilities fall into each column.

By knowing what your employees love and what they loathe, you can more selectively choose how to increase the work they find most meaningful and/or decrease that which they find most unsatisfying.

Bottom line? A little can go a long way. You don't have to change everything to ensure that your employees are happy at work. You do need to be more precise in finding the right balance of love, loathe and everything in-between.

(More: Is your office space keeping up with the times?)

Joni Youngwirth is managing principal of practice management at Commonwealth Financial Network.


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