Prof.dr. Arnold B. Bakker

Arnold Bakker is professor and chair of the department of Work & Organizational Psychology at Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands. He is president of the European Association of Work and Organizational Psychology. Bakker’s research interests include positive organizational behavior, the JD-R model, and the crossover of work-related emotions.  

Happy, Productive Workers

Over the past few decades, several scholars have claimed that happy workers are productive workers. There are indeed good reasons to propose a positive relationship between happiness and job performance. John Zelenski and his colleagues have argued that unhappy employees are more pessimistic, more sensitive to threats, and more defensive toward co-workers. Conversely, happy employees are self-efficacious, more sensitive to opportunities, and more helpful to co-workers. Whereas truly miserable employees are likely to display little energy and motivation, and, thus, accomplish little; happy employees are more creative, cooperative, and persistent. Unfortunately, although there is considerable support for the happy-productive worker thesis, the relationship between happiness and performance is usually poor. Happiness can only explain a small part of the variance in productivity. Why is this the case?

A closer look at the literature reveals that many scholars equate happiness with job satisfaction. Moreover, researchers have often taken high levels of positive affect, low levels of negative affect, and low levels of exhaustion as indicators of happiness. It is not surprising that such an imprecise approach results in weak correlations between happiness and productivity. Recently, we have argued and shown that employee work engagement is a much better predictor of job performance. Work engagement is a fluctuating state consisting of vigor (high levels of energy), dedication (high levels of enthusiasm), and absorption (high levels of flow). Whereas contentment and happiness are passive positive emotions that signal that we can sit back and relax; energy, enthusiasm, and flow are more active positive emotions that stimulate dynamic and creative behavior. When engaged, employees are willing to invest high effort in their work tasks. They are highly focused, and take personal initiative if needed – on a daily basis. Thus, if challenging job demands arise, happy workers are hardly ready to perform, whereas engaged workers have all the energy and motivation needed to excel. Quantitative diary studies suggest that the impact of work engagement on job performance (including financial results) is indeed substantially higher than the impact of job satisfaction/happiness on job performance. Organizations that look for competitive advantage take employee engagement serious – they offer the right blend of job demands and job resources. At the individual level, engaged employees proactively change their work environment in order to stay engaged. It’s time for happiness 2.0. It’s time for work engagement.