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workplace culture

Twenty years ago, I saw a play that changed my life. (Yes, good theatre can have that effect.) It was called Escape from Happiness by Canadian playwright George F. Walker and it not only launched my life-long love of theatre but, true to its title, it opened my 18-year-old eyes to the part of the human condition that craves misery.

How do we manage to get into so many situations that make us unhappy? It never ceases to amaze me how my career-driven friends and acquaintances continue to make choices they know will render them miserable. Admittedly, I'm not immune to this. It took me years to tell a former colleague that his incessant e-mails were slowly driving me mad. Now, I pay attention to my own happiness quotient and weed out aspects of my work that negatively affect it.

Yet, so many of us continue to wallow in roles and occupations that render us miserable. Don't believe me? Then check out a recent Gallup poll, which showed that a lucky 13 per cent of employees worldwide feel engaged at work. The rest just shuffle through their days or completely disengage and spread their malaise to others.

Here's my theory – we don't expect to find happiness at work, so we don't. Many of us spend our working hours knowingly undertaking a Dilbertesque exercise in futility and frustration. We may think we're soldiering on bravely, but frankly, this unhappiness is bad for business and the economy. It's time to stop escaping from happiness.

According to this year's United Nations World Happiness Report, happy people live longer, are more productive, earn more and are better citizens. The report suggests that countries should place as much emphasis on citizens' mental health as on economic growth. (Canada ranks sixth on the world happiness scale. The United States came in at 17th, just after Mexico.)

Perhaps it's time to rethink our approach to our work-life happiness quotient. Forget balance. I'm convinced that if we enjoyed what we did more, the time between punching in and out would feel less like suffering. But before embracing happiness as an important contributor to productivity and profits, we need to define it.

That's easier said than done, according to Rachel Schipper, chief executive officer and founder of Toronto-based Curated Wellness, a firm that provides wellness workshops for companies as well as individual coaching. Ms. Schipper, who spent five years as a lawyer on Wall Street, argues that happiness is not a matter of ticking off a series of boxes – and says a prestigious job, nice house and good marriage may not do the trick.

"I meet an awful lot of professionals who have all of these things and aren't happy, and moreover don't know what would make them happy because they haven't done the unfamiliar task of checking in to find out," she said.

Happiness, according to Ms. Schipper, is like a muscle that we've forgotten how to use in our business culture – but there are ways to pump it up. Ms. Schipper cited a team of volunteers she formerly managed. These volunteers needed to apply for the unpaid job, and be available from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. for both days of four weekends – and they kept coming back for more. She believes three key components contributed to their enthusiasm: they regularly received praise, food and drinks, and the opportunity to see the impact of their work in real-time.

"I rarely see all three of these components in a work environment," Ms. Schipper said.

Another way companies can inject happiness into the workplace is by demonstrating they care.

"If people feel happy, cared for and respected at work, they will want to work hard and excel," said Vanessa Judelman, president of Toronto-based Mosaic People Development, which offers leadership, management and executive training.

"I have often heard my clients say things like, 'Why should I take the initiative and put my heart and soul into my work if my company doesn't care about me?' But if a person feels happy and cared for by their organization, they are more likely to go the extra mile, work long hours and exceed expectations," she said.

Jessa Chupik, manager of recruitment, retention and employment equity at Ryerson University, said there is one obvious way to boost happiness levels at work: simply ask employees what would make them happier.

"We tend to make broad generalizations about Gen Y, X … about what makes them happy in the workplace," Ms. Chupik said. "Instead, we should be asking employees for their opinions or input into how to improve the culture and happiness of an organization."

Who knew it could be so simple. Almost as easy as sitting down to watch a life-changing play.

Leah Eichler is founder of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. E-mail: