Search engine giant Google is known for more than just answering the world’s questions; it’s also known for the elaborate lengths it goes to in order to keep its staff happy.

Its workplaces have become famous for all manner of employee’s perks, from napping pods to pool tables to unlimited free gourmet food, as the company endeavours to keep its employees happy and productive at the cutting edge.

But it’s not the only way to boost workplace happiness. When National Transport Insurance was named Australia’s Best Employer, there wasn’t a sleep pod, massage chair or pool table in sight. 

NTI CEO Tony Clark says the specialist insurer won the 2014 Aon Hewitt gong as a result of genuine engagement, not gimmicks. “We haven’t gone down the Google path,” he says. 

New Australian research, however, has shown a lack of examples like NTI within the Australian financial services industry, with a new nationwide survey finding one in three workers is unhappy. 

The Pac Executive Human Capital research shows young men are most likely to be miserable, with almost 40% of Gen Y finance  professionals and more than a third of men reporting unhappiness at work. 

A healthy bank account doesn’t guarantee mental health either, with two out of every five people earning more than $300,000 a year still gloomy. Pac Executive Director Cholena Orr says it should be a wake-up call for the insurance industry. 

“Our study shows clear links between happiness and productivity, and the results reveal just how harmful unhappy employees can be to the bottom line,” she says. 

According to the survey, unhappy employees are 22% less productive than their happy counterparts. The finding forms part of a small but growing body of research on the topic. 

UK consultancy the iOpener Institute says its research over the past 10 years shows the happiest people are more productive, focused and loyal than unhappy colleagues. 

The results reveal just how harmful unhappy employees can be to the bottom line.

Last year, economists at the University of Warwick published a study claiming to establish the first causal evidence that happiness improves productivity. 

Their randomised trials showed happiness increases staff productivity 10% and 12%, and that short-term productivity could be boosted 20% with just a few pieces of fruit or chocolate. 

But from a broader academic perspective, the jury is still out on whether there is a causal link between happiness and greater productivity, says Dr Peggy Kern from the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Positive Psychology.

“We certainly see correlations: we see that those who are more productive often are happier,” she says. 

“But it doesn’t necessarily mean people who are unhappy will become more productive if they’re happier.

“That’s what we hope, but we don’t actually have good evidence for it yet.”

The extra mile

Real world results

But for Tony Clark, the proof is in the pudding: he says NTI had record sales and profits when it won the Aon Hewitt title. 

“It isn’t the only factor, but it’s no coincidence that our customer service and financial metrics were at their best during that period,” he says. 

Clark says the keys to going from one of Aon Hewitt’s better employers to the best, were open communication and leadership. “We had to be brave enough to allow team members to tell leaders where things could be improved,” he explains. “It was not easy.”

“Leaders worked with teams  to get them to take responsibility for changes that could be made – things like understanding what success looks like and how to celebrate it.”

But Clark says NTI didn’t try to meet every single need. 

“There were some things we couldn’t change, but we could explain them – like how salaries and bonuses were calculated.”

“While details of NTI’s financial rewards are now publicly available to staff on its website, non-tangible rewards are just as important,” Clark says. 

He holds a monthly videoconference for NTI’s 200-odd staff, giving an honest reading of business numbers and – most importantly, he says – recognising staff achievement.

“Some people feel a bit shy, but they like the fact they’ve been recognised,” Clark says. “We’re trying to encourage people and let them know they have permission to go outside the boundaries or guidelines, to go above and beyond.”

Clark says recruiting the right people in the first place also helps NTI achieve its enviable levels of staff engagement. The company considers the analytical ability and psychometric
profile of would-be employees in a formal testing process. 

We’re trying to encourage people and let them know they have permission to go outside the boundaries.

But that’s just the first step if you want engaged, loyal staff, Clark warns. 

“You don’t just pick people to fill the gap. It’s about working with them to help them succeed,” Clark explains.

“Businesses are worried they might lose people by offering them development. The scary thing is, if you don’t develop them, what sort of business do you end up with?”

Happy staff

Top performers

Another company bucking the gloomy finance industry trend is claim management specialist Proclaim, which was named one of BRW’s 50 Best Places to Work in 2015. 

Like NTI, Proclaim takes a public approach to recognition, Managing Director Jon Broome says. On the last Friday of the month, staff knock-off at 4pm for a team meeting and the announcement of the ‘Proclaimer of the Month’ – someone who has gone the extra mile for clients. 

“They get an hour to spend $200 cash before they have to come back to the office and show what they have bought,” Broome explains. 

Staff wait with drinks in hand for their lucky colleague to return.

Past purchases have included everything from gaming consoles to kitchen appliances and artwork. 

Despite having less than 100 employees, Proclaim’s feedback process is rigorous. 

In addition to quarterly performance reviews, it holds bi-annual anonymous employee surveys.

“They’re confronting,” Broome admits. “We have a culture of challenging, so you’ve got to be able to take on constructive criticism and work out if you have an issue.

“Our last survey showed we needed to do more work on the technical career path, which we are currently doing as a strategic priority.”

For Proclaim, the aim is to have engaged staff, not just employees walking around with smiles on their faces. 

“Engagement leads to higher productivity, better service and better results for clients,” Broome says. “The happier your team, the better your workplace and the better your chances are of recruiting quality people. It’s a self-fulfilling circle if you can get it right.”

And to put everything in perspective, Organisation and Development Manager Karen Cohen says Proclaim gives workers two paid volunteer days a year. 

“It helps us appreciate our lives when we spend time with people who are less fortunate,” Cohen says. 

Another shining light in the gloomy financial services industry is trading company Optiver. 

After being named BRW’s Best Place to Work in 2013, the Sydney arm of the global market-making company came in third this year. 

Optiver points to the trust and flexibility it gives its staff as one of the keys to its success. Its 240-odd Australian employees are placed in teams of 10. 

“We are transforming the organisation to agile self-directed teams,” Asia-Pacific Chief Luke McElnea told BRW.  “Distributing decision-making throughout the business really empowers people in their work groups and the teams get really tight.”

Trust or bust

Ashley Coaching and Consulting Managing Director Stacey Ashley provides masterclasses in happiness at work. She says feeling trusted is a key ingredient for optimal employee performance.

“The ability to make choices within the remit of their role allows people to feel in control of what they do and when, and potentially how they complete parts of their job,” Ashley explains.

“Autonomy also helps build self-belief. People think: ‘if my boss trusts me to do this, they must think I can.’”

It helps us appreciate our lives when we spend time with people who are less fortunate.

Ashley says greater autonomy can boost motivation in both the short- and long-term. But while there’s plenty employers can do for their staff, ultimately happiness comes down
to the individual.

“Whether they can choose to be happy often comes down to whether they have the skills and strategies to not only be able to make this choice, but recognise they have a choice,” Ashley says.

“Good employers should be helping their staff pick up those skills.”