Be cautious with the term 'Work Happiness': Managing expectations

Human Resources

The Belgian economic journal, De Tijd, recently sought the perspectives of several opinion leaders on what needs to change in order to create a better world. Among these thought leaders was Professor Peggy De Prins, professor and expert in Human Resource Management (HRM). She argues that it's time for a reality check when it comes to job satisfaction.


I work a lot, and, in general, I love working. Every once in a while, I reach a high, a moment where everything seems to come together, a moment that I have often intensely been working toward. A presentation that sweeps the audience of its feet, a project that finally seems to take off, the moment you notice that you are positively impacting the minds and lives of others ... I cherish those moments and I can wholeheartedly say then that I’m happy at work. At the same time, those moments are scarce. They usually don’t come along more than once or twice a year.

Does that mean I’m unhappy at work for the rest of the year? No, of course not, but still, many days feel grey, or busy-busy-busy or heavy or … Through trial and error, I’ve learned that even a highly enviable job, with a lot of autonomy and challenges, often feels hard or trivial in real life. Sentiments in any case, that not even remotely approach the loaded and grand idea of job happiness.

And that’s okay, because I don’t want to be spoiled, either. I have noticed with myself and with other colleagues that we train ourselves to deal with the rough edges of our job. These are so-called coping mechanisms. They help us normalize, avoid, compensate for, or manipulate the dark sides of our jobs. Or we minimize them, laugh them off, or joke about them.

The opposite strategy is to enlarge the dark sides and flirt with them. In that regard, I read a study on top chefs. It is an unwritten rule that the way to a top kitchen is one of trial and error. Taking the fall and suffering are part of the professional growth process. If you really want to go for it, you need to suffer. This same idea tends to go down well too in the world of sports or academics.

It seems that the road to job happiness in any work context comes with a specific manual. The problem is that such manuals don’t easily see the light of day. They tend to be under the radar. It often takes months or years to be able to read the work context in terms of happiness potential. And many of us don’t have the stamina for that.

Younger coworkers especially, get impatient when the feeling of happiness is lacking. Work needs to be challenging and exciting. They want to give and get meaning to and from their job. They job hop as they please, getting a taste of a work context but rarely taking the time to make it their own.

Over-romanticizing the job of a lifetime can quickly turn to regret.

The motto “Meaning is the New Money” may be quite catchy but it often clashes with the routines and triviality of concrete job tasks. Over-romanticizing the job of a lifetime can quickly turn to regret.

That is why I advocate a renewed realism. Use the term job happiness carefully. Expectations may easily run too high. In the recruitment world, the importance of a realistic job preview has been known for quite a while. This is where traditional job applications often tend to go wrong. Fancy job titles and (too) rose-colored job information may generate more candidates at first, but in the long run they lead to more disappointment and turnover.

That is why a realistic assessment of the job, the workload and both the positive and tough sides of the job, is key, not just in the beginning but throughout employment within the organization. Engaging in dialogue nourishes a realistic assessment and perception of job happiness. Not every workday has the potential of being a happy day. And maybe that’s just as well, because it makes the days when we do shine or when everything seems to come together, all the more stand out.

This opinion piece was featured in De Tijd. You can read the Dutch version on their website.