Indeed launched the Work Happiness Score in March 2020 with a goal both simple and radical: to give job seekers a window into worker well-being. In the process, we created the world’s largest work happiness study1 and amassed the largest data set on worker well-being in the world.

But what insights does this have for us today? To commemorate the anniversary of the Work Happiness Score launch — which coincides with the 2021 United Nations International Day of Happiness — Indeed dug deeper into what these data reveal. 

In addition, we spoke with Dr. Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, director of Oxford University’s Wellbeing Research Centre and author of the U.N. World Happiness Report chapter on work. Dr. De Neve has supported Indeed’s happiness initiatives from the beginning as an expert advisor. Here, he shares key takeaways on how this research might shape a brighter future.

Indeed’s data set on workplace well-being is one of the largest ever created

To calculate its Work Happiness Scores, Indeed developed a survey to measure employees experiences at work. The survey, which is available on Indeed, has been taken by over 5 million U.S. workers and counting. In it, we ask if workers feel happy at their jobs, but also dig deeper to examine the role of stress, learning opportunities, a sense of belonging and more in their experiences.

Indeed’s workplace happiness data is now the largest of its kind in the world, and sheds new light on employee well-being. De Neve regards this “massive data set” as  “unparalleled, also because it enables tracking workplace well-being in quasi-real time” by company, industry, region, job type and more. 

“The richness of the data will make it a unique resource … to advance the research frontier on workplace well-being,” he explains.

Indeed’s Work Happiness Scores help job seekers understand worker well-being at different companies: the higher a company’s score, the happier its employees. This may lead job seekers to adjust their job searches accordingly. In turn, De Neve believes this will encourage companies to prioritize employee well-being in order to continue effectively attracting talent.

“That level of transparency pushes accountability,” he says, since lower workplace happiness scores will become a clear competitive disadvantage.  

Workers less happy than this time last year

Happiness at work is a must, not a perk. Studies show that happier employees are better workers, linking well-being to increased creativity and productivity.

Now, as we pass the one-year mark, workers are more unhappy than they were before.

While many people think of work as a transaction between employers and employees, “nothing could be further from the truth,” De Neve says; work is central to who we are as people, which is part of why Indeed’s research on well-being is so crucial. What’s more, Indeed began gathering happiness data in late 2019, not long before COVID-19 arrived in the U.S. — providing key information at a critical time. 

“It gives us an opportunity to look at the impact of the pandemic before, during and, hopefully one day, after,” De Neve says, which sets the Indeed data apart from other happiness studies conducted during the crisis. 

De Neve explains that worker happiness shifted over the course of the pandemic. Looking at the data, he observes rising anxiety in early 2020, when the scope of COVID-19 became apparent. In the spring, when the government intervened first through lockdowns and later with stimulus checks and other support, the data indicate a “sense of relief” among those that kept their jobs. But, as we know all too well, the pandemic persisted through the end of 2020. 

Now, as we pass the one-year mark, workers are more unhappy than they were before. When people lose their jobs or have to leave the labor market — as many did in the past year — they lose more than earnings. 

“Work provides structure, social network and social identity,” De Neve remarks. “These three [non-monetary] elements ... are priceless. When you lose your job, you lose all of it — not just pay.”

Indeed’s data also sheds light on trends in job vacancies and rehiring. Job postings dropped dramatically at the beginning of the crisis and are still well below pre-pandemic levels. As a result, it’s harder to get a new job today because there are fewer openings.

“That's where the Indeed data is invaluable and highly complementary to the standard unemployment figures,” he says. “It indicates the number of opportunities available for people who have lost their jobs.” He also hopes that COVID-19 vaccine rollouts will be instrumental in getting people back to work — and feeling happier. 

For workplace well-being, belonging outranks pay

But what actually shapes worker well-being? As an advisor for Indeed’s Work Happiness Score, De Neve worked with fellow happiness expert Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky and other project advisors to identify the primary determinants, or “drivers:” belonging, energy, appreciation, purpose, achievement, compensation, support, learning, inclusion, flexibility, trust and management. 

Indeed’s research reveals that employees often misjudge what drives their happiness at work.

By analyzing employee responses to questions about these key drivers in the Work Happiness Score surveys (taken before and during the COVID-19 pandemic), we can pinpoint several trends in what makes people happy at work—during both good times and challenging ones. 

When it comes to understanding what truly makes us happy, workers often miss the mark: Indeed’s research reveals that employees often misjudge what drives their happiness at work. While people believe compensation is the top predictor of happiness, in reality, the social elements of work are far more important. Belonging is the top driver of well-being, while pay falls in the middle of the pack. 

By analyzing the data, we can also learn how these drivers of happiness do (and don’t) change during times of crisis. De Neve found that not only did the highest-ranked determinants before the crisis — belonging, flexibility and inclusion — hold onto the top three spots, but they became even more important during the pandemic. At the same time, purpose, achievement, learning and appreciation became slightly less so. 

Supportive management also became somewhat more significant to workers during the pandemic. This makes sense, since workers need to feel safe and supported in difficult times. 

Flexibility is here to stay, requires planning and structure

The pandemic led to an unprecedented rise in remote work, and the full impact of this seismic shift remains to be seen. 

For De Neve, it raises two key questions: “To what extent do we continue and leverage the flexibility that we've gained? And to what extent can we return to what it was before?”

Flexibility brings obvious benefits, enabling employees to better balance work and personal responsibilities, such as caregiving, while reducing or eliminating commutes and the expenses associated with it. 

These positives cannot be overestimated, De Neve says, but “while there are short-term benefits … to working from home, a company should be wary of pushing this too far, too quickly.” 

The long-term drawbacks impact the social side of work, he says, particularly the key driver of belonging — which begins to decline significantly for previously in-person teams working remotely. The situation is even more dire for employees who have never worked together on-site, since they do not have the past in-person interactions to build upon. 

The loss of belonging is also detrimental to the intellectual elements of work, De Neve explains. 

Innovation and creativity require openness, spontaneity and collaboration — and those chance encounters in the hallway, before a meeting or over coffee “no longer happen,” he says, “[because] everything has to be planned.”

He believes that companies need to replenish both the social and intellectual capital dimensions of work to increase happiness, which means coming together in person. However, this doesn’t mean a return to the “9-to-5.” 

De Neve advocates for coordinated flexibility, a hybrid approach that offers the best of both worlds. For example, a team could coordinate to come to the office three days per week for purposeful interactions such as brainstorming, client meetings and conferences. They would use the remaining days to work from home on projects that require more individual focus, such as writing, emails or analysis.

This way, De Neve says, “people maintain their social identity; they maintain their social capital and invest in it the right ways; and they maintain a routine.”

He predicts this approach could boost both well-being and productivity, allowing workers and employers to leverage the pandemic’s lessons more broadly. After all, social impact begins with how companies treat their own.

“If [employees] feel great working at the company, then that is good for them and their families,” he explains. “There's an important social spillover effect.”

Conclusion

“My hope would be that this time next year, we've built back happier,” De Neve says. Employers can help make this happen by applying the insights of Indeed’s groundbreaking data on workplace well-being. 

As Indeed’s happiness data shows, work is about much more than a paycheck. Instead, the social aspects of work — particularly a sense of belonging — are crucial to well-being. While flexibility has become even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic, De Neve recommends a hybrid on-site and virtual approach to maximize the benefits while maintaining social ties.

There’s no time like the present to harness what we’ve learned. After the past year, the world could use an extra dose of happiness.

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For more insights on workplace happiness, register for the IndeedWorks event “Better Hiring, Better Jobs, Better Lives” on March 25.


1Source: 2021 Indeed.com Data, based on number of survey responses globally