Employee Happiness – lessons from positive psychology

Employee Happiness – lessons from positive psychology

Study: Are Cornell’s Employees Happy?

September 5, 2007 – 12:00am

By Liz Sheldon

Cornell students may not be the only ones stressed out on campus. Few have ever looked up from cramming for a prelim to ponder the anxiety level of a University librarian, but a study is currently underway to examine just that. It is intended to measure how satisfied Cornell non-academic employees are with their jobs, and if their level of enthusiasm can be improved.

The participants are all volunteers from human resources departments across campus who have agreed to complete online exercises measuring their happiness and productivity in the two-part study.

“The attempt here is to see if some of the interventions positive psychologists have created can be used with real people in real jobs to increase their satisfaction,” said Prof. Chris Peterson, psychology, University of Michigan, one of the psychologists administering the study.

Positive psychology is a field of psychology centered on improving one’s quality of life rather than simply avoiding or curing problems like mental illness. It has been gaining popularity lately, a trend that many seem to link with the current global climate.

“There seems to be a great need for positive psychology. From the U.S to Iraq we seem to be in a downward spiral, and exercises like these offer an opportunity to humanize the workplace,” said Chester Warzynski, director of organizational development and co-researcher in the study.

The study came about after a speech given at Cornell by positive psychologist and former Cornell professor Martin Seligman, who was unavailable for comment on this article. Seligman offered to make the materials he uses at the positive psychology center at the University of Pennsylvania available to Cornell employees, all of whom were invited to participate.

277 people responded to the survey, which asked them to rate both their levels of personal and professional happiness. In the upcoming phase, half of them will attempt improvement while the others will serve as a control group.

With the study still in progress, researchers were hesitant to release specifics about which groups of Cornell employees were the least satisfied. They did note, however, that employee fulfillment varied widely depending on the department.

Since the assorted departments at Cornell have different techniques for dealing with employees, there is the potential to take cues from the divisions with the most satisfied employees and make them part of a university-wide protocol.

“Overall, what we found here is not specific to a university. One of the things positive psychologists find is that people are fairly happy, yet see room for improvement. The same is true at Cornell, despite those brutal winters,” Peterson said. “The problem is, employers seem to emphasize incentives like bonuses, but what people really want is to love what they do.”

Increasing happiness is not the only goal Cornell has in mind. According to the proposal for the study, the ratings of the employee’s satisfaction will be cross-referenced with levels of productivity already recorded by Cornell. These include numbers of sick days taken, supervisor ratings and work output.

The health issue is also a central one to the study, Warzynski noted, as previous studies have shown improvements in mental health often correlated with improvements in physical health.

While this particular study focuses on employees, it may have implications for students. Already, data collected from the study will be analyzed by students in Warzynski’s course, ILRHR 661: Applied Personal and Organizational Development. If it proves successful, the exercises may be made available to the entire Cornell community.

“We want graduates and undergraduates to be able to comment on their experiences – their interactions with Cornell employees and their working environment currently, and later evaluate their own satisfaction,” Warzynski said.

Peterson sees a different approach to student’s role in the study.

“It’s important for students to remember it’s the staff that makes it all happen. At a university, the professors are like the rock stars, but you have to remember all the people that make the show happen. If students just take the time to say ê¢__‘–thank you” on the phone it would make a world of difference.”