Person lying down with book on face. Is this how we imagine rest?

Take a moment to think about your personal experience of joy in the workplace.

Can you recall a time when you felt joyful at work?

Did you let it show, or share it with those around you?

Do you think of joy as having a place at work – is it something we should be actively building into our cultures?

Should organisations prioritise joy?

Increasingly, joy is seen as not just an important element of our lives, but one which organisations have a responsibility to cultivate among their people. This feels like a recent trend; in the past, work was seen as a more serious place where “professionalism” meant foregoing overt expressions of emotion.

Contrast that with the ubiquitous twenty-first century stock images of teams of joyful people – high-fiving across desks; laughing in offices; smiling with deep satisfaction in 1:1 meetings. And no doubt, living equally joyous and perfect lives!

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Alex Liu proposes that companies strive to “Make the experience of joy an explicit corporate purpose.”

So what does it mean if we don’t feel joy?

If joy should be part of our corporate, and individual, purposes – what does it mean if we don’t feel joy? Are we on some level, failing?

According to research, it’s a common scenario.

In a Kearney survey of over 500 employees,

“Nearly 90% of respondents said that they expect to experience a substantial degree of joy at work, yet only 37% report that such is their actual experience.”

This “joy gap”, it is suggested, should be something we endeavour to close. But setting such a metric as part of an organisation’s goals may be more complicated than we realise.

One review of current psychological literature on joy noted that, when it comes to happiness, there is some evidence that our experience is tied to a unique “baseline”.

“The set point theory of happiness suggests that hereditary and early development factors combine to give each individual a ‘set point’ for happiness. While their level of happiness will fluctuate over short periods, when viewed over larger periods of time, their happiness will cluster around some kind of baseline. Similarly, might some individuals have a ‘baseline’ that means that they experience joy more readily, frequently, or across a wider diversity of situations?” (Matthew Kuan Johson, 2019).

Kuan Johnson goes on to note that the experience of joy is different for people of different cultures. Indeed, the experience of many emotions seems to differ in complex ways depending on our cultural background.

In addition, we know that neurodiversity is often expressed through different responses to emotions. Stating the experience of certain emotions in a company’s goals might alienate neurodiverse individuals, or place pressure on people to “mask” what are considered to be unacceptable or taboo emotions.

The problem with happiness

What’s more, it’s a matter for debate whether feelings of joy or happiness are in fact natural states for us. Dr Anders Hansen, author of The Happiness Myth, argues that humans have evolved not to live in a state of happiness or bliss, but rather to be alert to threats and dangers.

“The brain never evolved for happiness, it evolved for survival and reproduction and it wants to keep you alive!”

So is it best to drop the idea of joy at work altogether?

As advocates of bringing our whole, diverse, human selves to the workplace, we’d love to see a world where joy belonged at work. But it seems unrealistic to codify certain feelings into policies, especially given or unique individual relationships to our emotions.

When discussing the adoption of joy as part of the corporate purpose, Liu suggests leaders:

“Strengthen your inclusion agenda to incorporate meaningful efforts toward ensuring all employees feel heard, recognized, and acknowledged. Fund mental health benefits for all employees.”

Being heard, recognised and acknowledged suggests to us space for people to bring all their emotions to work, in a safe and appropriate way, feeling confident they will be accepted.

Joy, yes, but also frustration, grief, excitement, anxiety, fulfilment, resentment, and every other expression.

Different people will experience these in different ways, and at different times.

In our diverse teams, joy may not always be visible.

A team member who never grins, high-fives or posts social media selfies may be a crucial member of your organisation – and should not be considered “less than”.

Knowing individuals personally, and asking them what they need to do, feel and connect at their best, is a good place to start.

How are you allowing the full range of human emotions – and humans – to be present in your workplace culture?

At Global Warriors, we support organisations and leaders to develop understanding, expand their language and use tools that allow emotions into the workplace, without losing sight of their goals.

Contact us to find out more about our work.

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