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The desire for meaning is so strong that sometimes people simply create it, especially to make sense of difficult or unpleasant work. In a recently completed six-year study of physicians during their surgical residency, for example, Pratt found that the surgeons were extremely dissatisfied in the first year, when the menial work they were assigned, like filling out endless copies of patient records, seemed pointless. Once they started to think of the training as part of the larger process of joining an ??lite group of doctors, their attitude changed. "They're able to reconstruct and make sense of their work and what they do," Pratt explains. "By the end of year one, they've started to create some meanings."
While positive psychology has mostly focused on the individual pursuit of happiness, a new field--positive organizational scholarship--has begun to examine the connection between happy employees and happy businesses. Instead of focusing on profitability and competition to explain success, researchers in this field are studying meaningfulness, authentic leadership and emotional competence. Not the typical B-school buzzwords, but they may soon become part of the language spoken by every M.B.A.
Until recently, businesspeople would dismiss employee well-being as "outside their domain and kind of fringe-ish," says Thomas Wright, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Nevada, Reno. Early hints of the importance of worker happiness were slow to be accepted. A 1920s study on the topic at the Hawthorne plant of the Western Electric Co. in Cicero, Ill., looked at whether increased lighting, shorter workdays and other worker-friendly fixes would improve productivity. While the workplace changes boosted performance, the experimenters eventually discovered that the differences workers were responding to were not in the physical environment but in the social one. In other words, the attention they were getting was what made them happier and more effective. This phenomenon came to be known as the Hawthorne effect. "The researchers came to realize that it was people's happiness that made the difference," Wright says. But later studies that looked at job-satisfaction ratings were inconsistent. Broader measures of happiness, it turns out, are better predictors of productivity.
As researchers develop better tools for measuring happiness, businesses may not be able to ignore the evidence. Wright did several studies of white-collar managers at large organizations and found that employee happiness could account for 10% to 25% of the variance in job performance. In hard numbers, assuming a 40-hour week, that translates into as much as 48 min. of lost productivity a day. In a business with 100 workers who make an annual salary of $65,000 each, an improvement in well-being could account for as much as $650,000 in productive time a year. "To me, that's a huge competitive advantage," Wright says.