The diminishing return of happiness at work: What if the good life doesn’t feel that good anymore?

Sue der Kinderen explored how eudaimonic well-being can be integrated into long-term well-being and fulfilment at work.

30-11-2020 | 11:47

Now more than ever, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, many individuals are having a closer look at what we call happiness. It is undeniable that the power is shifting from the organisation onto the individual employee. It is the individual who increasingly determines the quality and quantity of both his or her work and private time.

Hedonism, or a kind of happiness defined by immediate gratification and pleasure, is going out of favour. In its place, another sort of happiness is on the rise that we can understand as a way of life which encompasses meaning, personal growth, and positive relations. This is eudaimonic well-being.

Despite this shift, a review of 800 peer-reviewed empirical studies illustrates that ‘hedonic well-being’ is the primary framework for positive well-being at work. In other words, what the scholarly literature demonstrates is that the majority of workplaces’ well-being efforts focus on the experience of being happy or satisfied with one’s job. The literature also makes clear that these hedonic elements have proven difficult to influence over time. In contrast, only 5% of these 800 studies examine eudaimonic well-being.

Scope: Bringing eudaimonic happiness out of abstraction

A eudaimonic lens moves this research beyond feeling good and helps capture and influence well-being, which is reflected in employee thoughts and behaviours vis-à-vis a purposeful life, fostering positive relationships, striving for personal growth, and achieving mastery. These elements, unlike their hedonic counterparts, contribute to long-term well-being and are more amenable to environmental influence.

Hence, this research asks: What happens when we stop looking at employee well-being as ‘a means to an end’, and instead consider it ‘an end in itself’? Can elements of eudaimonic well-being be integrated into the determination of the employee experience? And what role can an organisational context play in shaping eudaimonic well-being?

Initial findings and next steps

Research into this was carried carried out with 312 employees at a large Dutch mental healthcare organisation. Our findings provided evidence for the organisational context’s role in affecting the ‘mutual gain’ of individual well-being and occupational performance. These findings illustrate that servant-leadership practices relate positively to both eudaimonic well-being (measured here as psychological well-being which includes autonomy, personal growth, positive relationships, purpose in life, environmental mastery and self-acceptance) and workplace engagement and performance. However, this ability of a servant leader to impact both performance and well-being is conditional upon a positively perceived psychosocial work climate. Without this, the former assertion does not hold true. This study showed the crucial role of a civil work climate, but also of a leader being able to reach organizational goals both directly as well as through promotion of the eudaimonic well-being of followers.

The next phase of this PhD research will focus on better understanding the specific behaviours that engender eudaimonic well-being and whether they can be supported or encouraged in the context of work. This understanding will be built on the researchers’ preliminary categorisation of three behaviours of workplace eudaimonic well-being (i.e., behaviours that lead to fulfilment rather than instant gratification): 1) pursuit of purpose behaviours; 2) positive relationship behaviours; and 3) personal growth behaviours.

Current studies include examining the role of a mindfulness intervention in eliciting these eudaimonic behaviors, and the role of these personal resources on flourishing and work outcomes. By examining eudaimonic behaviours at work—such as reflecting on strengths and goals, giving and receiving support, having meaningful conversations, and pursuing meaningful goals etc.—this work can help bring eudaimonic well-being out of abstraction, into the light, where both individuals and organisations can shape behaviours which contribute to our full functionoing. Practical insights will involve developing frameworks that foster long-term well-being at work rather than a temporary, fleeting sense of happiness.

Recommended Readings

der Kinderen, S., & Khapova, S. N. (2020). Positive Psychological Well-Being at Work: The Role of Eudaimonia. In S. Dhiman (Ed.), The Palgrave Handbook of Workplace Well-Being (pp. 1–28). Cham: Springer International Publishing. Read more

der Kinderen, S., Valk, A., Khapova, S. N., & Tims, M. (2020). Facilitating eudaimonic well-being in mental health care organizations: The role of servant leadership and workplace civility climate. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(4). Read more

Sue_der_KinderenAbout the author
Sue der Kinderen is an organizational psychologist who supports individuals and organizations in their pursuit of sustainable well-being and good functioning. She is currently enrolled in the parttime Executive PhD programme at the School of Businesss and Economics at the VU University Amsterdam.