John Helliwell studies happiness.
The University of British Columbia economist helps edit an annual report on global happiness, has written about marriage and happiness, and has studied whether there's a link between how happy you are and the number of friends in your social network (there isn't).
His most recent paper, released earlier this week by the National Bureau of Economic Research, looks at people's job satisfaction and the differences between their weekday and weekend emotions. The additional joy that weekends bring—what he and his co-author call the "weekend effect"—is much smaller for people who enjoy their jobs than for those who dread what they do from nine to five. And in some cases, weekends bring no added happiness at all.
That's intuitive, to a certain extent: If you like your job, you're going to be more satisfied on weekdays, making the emotional gap between your days in the office and your days outside it much smaller. After all, having a good job “isn't making the weekends worse," Helliwell said in an interview. "It's making the weekdays better."
What was more surprising, though, was how just how dramatically our workplace environment has an impact on our weekend mood. Helliwell's research found that about three-quarters of the "weekend effect" for emotions like happiness and enjoyment can be explained by the quality of a person's workplace. For comparison, spending additional time with friends and family on the weekend explains much less—only about one quarter of the gap between weekday and weekend joy. (The average person spends roughly seven hours a day with friends and family on weekends, compared to five hours a day during the week.)
While that hardly means family and friends aren't important, Helliwell says, it is a reminder of how significantly our careers affect the rest of our lives. So what kind of work environment makes people enjoy their weekdays just as much as their time off?
For the study, Helliwell used four years of data from a Gallup poll that asked people two questions: whether they felt their manager always created an environment that is trusting and open (answering yes or no), and whether their manager acts more like a partner or a boss. People who answered "yes" and "partner" had far smaller differences between their weekend and workday happiness than those who did not. "This comes through so strongly," he said. "It's quite striking."
What was also surprising about Helliwell's data was the high percentage of survey respondents who said they worked in a trusting environment (80 percent of the sample said they did) and the large percentage who said their supervisor was more like a partner (62 percent).
He’s not concerned that all those satisfied people could have skewed his results—more than 700,000 respondents answered the questions about their workplace. “It’s the best sample I’ve ever seen,” he said. “That’s why these results are as statistically significant as they are.”
As someone who studies happiness, Helliwell says the link between the level of trust we feel at work and the emotions we experience outside of it is often underestimated, both by employees and by managers. Plus, sometimes those bosses who do understand the connection may try to take advantage of it.
Once, when Helliwell was sharing with executives the results of a past study, he pointed out how fostering more trust among employees can at times have the same impact on their happiness as getting a 30 percent jump in income.
Some of the executives, he said, remarked: "Let me get this, if we can make our workplace more trusting, then we wouldn't have to pay people so much?" Helliwell, for his part, responded: "You don't really get this, do you?"