Your employees are your greatest ambassadors!

What is happiness at work anyway? What is the difference between the statements: “I am satisfied with my job” and “I am happy in my job”? How, if at all, is happiness at work defined in the legislation? What are the differences if we compare the working environment of Slovenia or Spain with that of Sweden or Norway? Why are there any differences at all? Would it be possible to introduce a six-hour workday in companies in Slovenia?

We talked about this and much more with Petra Božič Blagajac and Maja Lončar, who are consultants for the co-creation of a positive organisational culture and the first internationally certified workplace happiness managers in Slovenia.

How did you start working in the field of workplace well-being?
Petra
: We used to be colleagues in another company, where we were actually a very happy team. We got on with each other very well and had really good relationships. We were doing some great things that were really making a difference to society. What we always learn from happiness at work – work that brings meaning, results, good relationships, yes, that’s the right work.  In short, we really worked in a wonderful environment and did so for quite some time. Then things changed and as a result, we ended up as colleagues again, this time in our own new company. At first, we were looking around for a bit, we weren’t really sure exactly what to do. We used to deal mainly with communication and management, also with finance. Maja’s expertise was in financial management, while mine was more in public relations and digital communication. We were looking for a way to give the world or people something good, and above all, to make them feel as good as we did in the work environment. We came across Alexander Kjerulf and his international network of Woohoo Chief Happiness Officers. We connected with him and this network, joined as partners and then went to Copenhagen to the academy for workplace happiness managers. Thus began our journey of spreading awareness of how important it is to have a good time at work, as we spend a good part of our active time at work and it makes sense to have a good time and enjoy it. In fact, work and private life are strongly connected: if you are happy at work, you are also happy in life and vice versa.

Maja: As a team we were (in a former company) very connected. I can say that we were friends, not just colleagues. Most of us are still friends today; we still get together once a year, have dinner together and catch up. Looking back … This happiness at work that we’ve learned over the years, read about, we’ve actually had happiness at work, I’m just not sure whether we’d have called it that ten years ago. For me, it’s important for everyone to know that friendships are allowed, that emotions are allowed, that people can like each other in the workplace, and that this is actually completely normal. I wish that everyone had a similar positive experience. It’s completely different to work – even if I compare it with any other previous jobs, where it was different; people couldn’t even say please or thank you, which is one of the basics. 

Do you think that there are many companies in Slovenia that could be said to have a good working environment?  Or more than in the past. What is your experience?

Maja: I would say that, according to the research, there are still not enough people who are taking care of that. Certainly, this story, this importance or employee well-being, happiness at work – however, in whatever form we are talking about now, care for employees, is becoming more influential. Also, if we look at the world, this initiative to look after people did not start in the COVID era. It’s already 10, 15 years old. So, all the relevant institutions from Gallup and the World Economic Forum to many institutes, in some way promote or raise awareness of the need to change this mindset to put people first. It seems to me that people will be even more aware of how important this is during and after the COVID era. Such people are more satisfied, more engaged and have a better sense of well-being It is also directly connected with how they react in a crisis, how they feel. Stress levels are lower, they remain more creative, more innovative, only positive, and they also cope better in a crisis. The number of such people is certainly growing, but such efforts are still insufficient. One more thing, it is not only a European or a global or only a Slovenian trend that this concern for employees is in principle more pronounced in larger companies, in multinationals, where they actually have people who look after this. It is also more pronounced in the private sector than in the public sector, where employees are left to their own devices more.

Or they are probably being harassed by colleagues. Bullying or mobbing in the workplace is common, at least according to the articles I read. I’m interested in your opinion. Is there more of this in the public or private sector?

Maja: There’s no research, so I would just be guessing, whatever I said. We are talking more about mobbing and learning what it is. The fact is that in Slovenia in the last eight years, it has been noticeable that there have been more and more cases of someone experiencing mobbing, around five per cent. Which means that the more people talk about it, the more people dare to report it. But I wouldn’t dare point the finger now or say that it’s one or the other. There is something else to do with mobbing: mobbing usually intensifies during or immediately after a crisis. We can expect it to happen, which they will discover if they do any research that it will get stronger again after this COVID period.

Petra: The way organisations take on staff is very important because we, workplace happiness professionals, are very committed to, for example, culture feed, which means hiring people who fit in with the organisational culture and teaching them everything else. People are hired because of their attitudes, not because of their skills, which they can learn later. In this case, it is likely – I have not seen any particular research, but from a completely logical point of view – mobbing less so because people connected differently, support each other, trust is greater, because they are united. However, organisations recruit based on certain rules, instructions, it is probably different there because very different people with different interests, attitudes and values come together: in short, this may mean some difference.

Maja: Mobbing is unhealthy, uncomfortable negative action of someone who holds power. Be that a team leader or director or whoever. Last year, Petra and I conducted another survey on how good the working days of Slovenians are. I just mentioned mobbing … In times of crisis, it intensifies, but we found that during the corona crisis, leaders were rated worse, or compared to 2019, workers cited leaders as the reason for bad work days, which also increased by five per cent, saying that the manager was responsible for bad work days. On the other side, it’s true that people’s perception of what mobbing is differs. It seems to me that when there is this culture feed in a company, that it has an organisational culture where this is not permissible, that is where happiness or well-being at work ‒ whatever we call it ‒ reigns, where trust reigns, there is no room for mobbing. Mobbing is not tolerated.

What is the situation if we compare well-being at work in Slovenia and beyond, in the European Union? The Swedes have something quite developed: IKEA in Slovenia is also introducing the role of workplace happiness manager in its Ljubljana branch. Do northern European countries place more emphasis on it than we do?

Maja: The basic difference, the story lies in the different sociological, social background. In our experience, the mentality in the Scandinavian countries ‒ Finland, Denmark, Sweden, etc. ‒ is completely different. For them, job satisfaction is something that is not in question at all. Therefore, adequate pay, appropriate working conditions, the basics, even gender equality, equal pay ‒ these are things that go without saying. If this is not the case for them, it is socially unacceptable. This is followed by commitment and happiness, and the balance between private and work life is very important to them and very much taken into account. They have a completely different mentality and they don’t have this cult of too much work like we do here. There is no such belief that you can only earn something if you work like a dog, like we have here. With them, quite simply, you open a beer and then you go to work, while here you have to work 12 hours first to earn that beer.  This is a completely social aspect

Petra: Culturally conditioned and in fact also in our international network of workplace happiness, we notice differences in how we work. For example, Scandinavian and western European countries have many more workshops, projects, more of everything related to happiness at work, compared to us, in eastern Europe and the countries of the former Yugoslavia, even in central Europe, where we must first explain the benefits happiness at work brings and only then can we gradually begin to work on it. The difference in awareness is quite large. Not only at work but also in their private life, people in this part of Europe allow themselves to be less happy, or it is forbidden fruit to them. We often find that the word happiness is not good to mention or that we have to say it in a different way, introduce it in a different way. Happiness is a well-used concept; if you type the word into the Google search engine, the search returns millions of results. Especially in the Slovenian language, sreča (happiness) is a broad-ranging concept: these are games of chance, we also use this word when we are happy with life. In English, this is distinguished with the words luck and happiness. People are not used to being happy or they do not dare to be happy. We can’t afford ourselves that. Since 1 January this year, we’ve had a Facebook group in which we have been coaching people in happiness for a hundred days. The group members are taught how to take small steps to reach a state in life in which you feel good, where you are good, positive and optimistic.

How about if we compare it to southern Europe? The Spanish and Portuguese have a rather interesting work schedule with an intermediate siesta. It never ceases to amaze me how we always worry because we want everything to be fantastic; we will set ourselves additional tasks, which may not even be necessary, just to prove ourselves. We will work more than eight hours just to get everything done. Are work habits always conditioned by mentality? Do you think we will adopt this northern or western mentality here? Or is our attitude to work too ingrained in us?

Maja: I’m afraid not. In the sense like in the north, probably not. From the viewpoint of the whole of Slovenia, we are ‒ at least as far as awareness is concerned ‒ certainly 40 or 50 years behind the northern European countries. As for countries like Spain and Portugal, the lifestyle there has been completely different since time immemorial. I doubt that they will adopt the lifestyle of Scandinavians or us, Slovenians.  We are a little special in that sense. On the one hand, we are very Austrian or German oriented, very disciplined, hardworking, and on the other hand, we are a little southern and we would also like to be a little more casual but this northern mentality of ours wins. All of this is very much connected with lifestyle, beliefs, culture, and society. Happiness also means something different to everyone. From a purely technical point of view, according to the research, the Spanish and the Portuguese are no happier at work than we Slovenes are. Across Europe, this commitment is around 20 to 30%, depending on the country, and is lower in southern European countries than in northern European countries, which is perfectly normal given the situation. Well, not normal, more understandable.

How is workplace happiness or well-being covered by the legislation?

Maja: One piece of workplace legislation regarding workplace well-being might be said to relate to workplace health regulations. In particular, this part which refers to the appropriate physically equipped workplace, to appropriate working conditions. For example, measurements of light and temperature in offices and factories. Now, in the time of corona, employers have to ensure certain hygiene standards. Mobbing is also legally defined and contractual relationships must also be regulated … This does not apply to well-being, except for this part on health and safety at work, so satisfaction and nothing else is discussed. Our legislation does not address this, I think, not even about the workplace, it is not even in the catalogue, that someone could say that he is a well-being manager, a happiness manager … I don’t think that workplace stress is recognised as an occupational disease either. The legislation has remained almost unchanged, only a few changes have been introduced recently, that is in technical contractual matters and in relation to annual leave and the like, but nothing more has changed.  In turn, this is directly related to employment legislation and the consequences of losing one’s job. As I mentioned earlier, in the case of the Scandinavian countries, if someone comes to work for an employer with whom he or she doesn’t get along with for whatever reason, the employer may not even meet certain conditions (fair pay, inequality in the workplace, mobbing), the worker does not have to negotiate employment and he doesn’t have to wait to be fired. The employee himself simply decides not to work for this employer and goes to the institution and says that he cannot work for that kind of employer and explains the reasons why not, and quite normally receives compensation and other benefits that are due to him in the event of losing his job. Again, we can talk about a diversity of mentalities. Why is there greater workplace happiness or well-being there but not in other countries?! In a way, they punish us if we aren’t satisfied with what we have.

The next question is related to a healthy working environment. Given that we all mostly work from home now, no one controls what kind of environment someone works in. So we can predict that we will be able to the consequences in the health of workers who are working from home. They are probably even already visible. Stress is becoming more widespread, even unhealthy conditions disrupt work, just like this conversation is disrupted by the loud tweeting of birds (laughs).

Maja: These are actually healthy conditions. In fact, birdsong makes you feel very good and contributes to happiness. Regarding stress … One is the physical aspect. If this is not optimal, it is clear that this affects stress. I think that, today, in these circumstances, the psychological aspect of working from home is much more critical. This has much bigger consequences. According to data in Europe, as much as 50% of sick leave is due to stress at work, which stems from unhealthy, bad relationships, mobbing and the like. This is where workplace happiness comes to the fore – well-being, activities that are supposed to eliminate it. Concern for psychological security, as it is now called. Both the individual and the company must take care of the organisation, the company must contribute to psychological stability. Of course, in these times, this certainly means something else, because of COVID and all the challenges that await us in the field of work in the future. This is a completely different story.

In a way, it is surprising that it is the Japanese, who are a very hardworking nation, have had a tremendous increase in suicides due to COVID and due to tensions in the workplace at the time.

Petra: Organisations and businesses found themselves in a trap due to COVID, when we didn’t know how to proceed. One of the solutions that has proved very successful is communication. For example, excessive communication – everything is said many times, everyone keeps announcing things and talks to people. This also applies to the physical environment when working from home. In the past, it was self-evident that the employer took care of this, so the employee did not do much with his workplace, but now it’s the employer’s responsibility to tell the employee what the job should be like at home, what is good for the employee and helps him arrange his home working environment. The employer has to ensure that the employee himself starts to realise that it is his responsibility to take care of that now that he is working from home. There is nothing an employer can do other than guide and help him. This excessive communication, which has proven to be one of the best strategies during the corona period, applies to all areas: the physical environment, interpersonal relationships, relationships with managers, company operation and the state of the company. It’s all about communication, which has to be a lot during this period, it’s much more extensive.

Maja: Regarding psychological security, companies’ practices are known, and we also know of companies that have already worked hard to put employees at the forefront. Even in these times, these companies have invested much more, not only in communication but also in employee education, from training and workshops to conversations with psychologists, with practitioners working in the field of psychological security, thus transferring knowledge and skills that can greatly benefit employees and thus strengthening their identity.

Do entrepreneurs take advantage of the many services and training you offer? Do you think they help them? 

Petra: Yes, they help, they definitely help. Especially for those who choose longer transformations, so that it is not just one workshop or meeting, but we carry out the process of transforming the organisational culture, for which the results are very quickly noticeable and very good.

Maja: In general, employees from the operational level and middle management are much happier with these workshops, take education more seriously and try to put new knowledge into practice within the company, at least in part, certainly more than a top, strategic manager.  I could return to discussing how this is very successful for us. 

Petra: The old rule says that the employee leaves a company or organisation due to the manager, not due to the organisation.

Maja: Even if we look at middle management, they are actually the busiest because they are the catalyst between management and the employees. But they are receptive. Going back to cultural differences … Many northern European countries have programmes for happiness, for well-being, for managing emotions and stress. In fact, they learn it from an early age, they are familiar with it from a young age, and live with it. It’s a skill. Well-being is not just a feeling, it’s a skill, a competence that we develop and have knowledge of. That is why it means a lot to managers to learn something about well-being in workshops and then develop it. Some of this is self-evident to me and Petra as we have worked in a good work environment for 15 years, and in some companies the staff don’t even say good morning.

Petra: It all starts with this. With a greeting like good morning, the relationship begins to develop, happiness at work begins, well-being, everything in fact.  With a simple hello or good morning.

And with a smile. Who is more involved in your training? Employees from the public sector, the private sector, non-governmental? From smaller or larger companies?

Maja: Employees from the private sector. From the biggest to the smallest companies in Slovenia.

We also looked for good practices in Slovenia for the WELLy project. Namely, how companies introduce certain activities to make their employees feel good in their job and in the work environment. It turns out that it is difficult to find much more than a sentence on this topic online. As if entrepreneurs are ashamed to admit that they carry out activities to make their employees feel good, that as a result they enjoy coming to work and don’t want to resign … Is what the two of you have described really typical? We Slovenians will work like horses but we won’t brag about it. We don’t know how to accept praise for a job well done either.

Petra: This is another of the challenges we face. We do not know how to accept praise. We don’t know how to accept a compliment. Somehow, we still have to give them or we feel like we have praised something, but acceptance is challenging.

Maja: There are many companies in Slovenia that do a lot of good. Not just in the field of employee satisfaction, material benefits and the like. However, in many places, the aspect of relationships is missing; positive relationships are not created. We often see companies claiming that their employees have fruit, coffee and the like, and that’s as far as it goes. In Scandinavia, it’s normal for them to have more than fruit, coffee and water. All of this contributes to satisfaction, but it’s not mentioned, as it is normal for employees to have all this available. Here, they make a point of mentioning it. First, because of a lack of understanding of what satisfaction, commitment and well-being even mean. Just a definition of what the differences are between these concepts, what contributes to satisfaction and what to well-being. I must stress that many people in Slovenia do a lot of good, including in the field of workplace happiness, well-being, whatever you call it, but these people aren’t officially called a well-being manager or workplace happiness manager. This is not used in our country, although this doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist here. There are a lot of good practices but, of course, there are a lot of those who just brag about something material they offer their employees. Like bonuses that don’t create long-term happiness or well-being in general.

Petra: Once you got used to the material things, you would want even more. We are hedonists by nature and when we get something, we want more just a month later. And then even more. Therefore, this pleasure (coffee, water, fruit, massages, higher pay) on the one hand is a very quick solution, and at the same time it is a bottomless pit. It costs a lot, but it is a pretty simple recipe. If an organisation has the money, it can do this indefinitely. However, the employer must be aware that he or she will not have employees who will go the extra mile at work, who will do their best, who will enjoy what they do and who will praise the company they work for. It just won’t happen. The employee will say that the job is OK, they won’t show any particular enthusiasm.

Maja: The goal of any organisation should be to make its employees its greatest ambassadors. This means that when an employee leaves work at the end of the day, they could tell everyone that they are happy at work, that they have a top-notch employer. Salary does not raise this feeling in an employee, that is a fact. A good salary is the basis, because if the salary is not good, there is nothing else.

Petra: Research shows that this is a very untapped potential in organisations.

Maja: If the employee is not complimentary, we end up with what is the competitive advantage of the future ‒ the employer’s brand.

I recently listened to an interview with Mindvalley founder Vishen Lakhiani, in which he talked about a practice he had introduced in his company. Employees come to work in the morning, it’s family time, family breakfast and exercise. Then it’s time for work but until no later than four in the afternoon, which means his employees work a maximum of six hours. Expecting anything like this is probably utopian for Slovenia. A more flexible working day would probably help keep employees happy in their jobs.

Maja: Absolutely! Even if those in a position of power gave up their business blindness, and at least believed the research conducted and the statistics, the world would be completely different. A six-hour workday has proved to be most optimal for people and especially for those over fifty, another hour or two less a week. Those who follow the research also take this into account. This is not a problem for them. I think that in Slovenia, Plastika Skaza had or have a project with which the company experimented with the introduction of a six-hour workday. If I’m not mistaken, Donar also has a six-hour workday. There is probably another such company in Slovenia. The example of Mindvalley, however, is interesting because they have built a company based on trust and the responsibility of the individual. Here we return to the topic of happiness at work. That’s it! Taking responsibility and trust! Most companies are still working on control and supervision. Many companies, including Mindvalley, could be role models to others in terms of working conditions for employees and workplace happiness. Many world-famous companies work on the same principle. Those companies that are considered happy and that find themselves on credible lists of the best employers work in the same way, the essence is the same: communication, transparency, trust, happiness, well-being. Always, without exception, people come first. This is the most important strategic pillar, and this applies to all of these companies.

Petra Božič Blagajac and Maja Lončar are consultants for the co-creation of a positive organisational culture and the first internationally certified workplace happiness managers in Slovenia. The programmes that upgrade the organisational culture and education are implemented on the basis of more than 20 years’ experience in the fields of communication, growth management and the development of people and organisations. They are members of the global workplace happiness network Woohoo Unlimited and founders of the Slovenian Academy for Workplace Happiness Managers. They are also speakers at the Global Online Happiness at Work Summit, visiting lecturers at the DOBA Faculty, the Faculty of Commercial and Business Sciences, and members of the Culture Management Academy in Belgrade and the Polish Academy for Workplace Happiness Managers, and are the authors of numerous professional articles.

About their company Paleta znanj, they said: At Paleta znanj, we believe that only human-oriented companies can thrive, develop and grow sustainably, and are consequently more productive and successful. Our mission is to raise awareness of the importance and benefits of happiness at work and to co-create happy and positive organisational cultures. We achieve this by providing targeted and strategic support to employers and employees in creating happy and stimulating work environments, by bringing together diverse knowledge in the fields of management, human capital management, communication, mentoring and education in workshops, lectures and integrated programmes to upgrade organisational culture.

In 2020, we also started to run an internationally certified Academy for Workers’ Happiness Managers in our company, which is implemented by the global network Woohoo Unlimited in four languages: English, Spanish, Polish and now also Slovenian. In March 2020, we enrolled in the third generation. It’s a six-week programme in which participants learn everything they need to establish a happy work environment: they learn the theory, the science of happiness at work, various research projects and findings from around that world that support happiness at work. We also tackle personal happiness as we are advocates of the theory that if an individual is not happy, he cannot make others happy and cannot create a happy environment. We deal with positive communication, positive teams, interpersonal relationships that should rule in teams. And last but not least, the course deals with the strategic level of happiness at work ‒ how to transfer happiness at work to the level of the organisation, how to incorporate it all into key indicators, establishing a workplace happiness manager or a happy team that looks after it. We also touch on happy customers resulting from happy employees. Happy customers bring higher revenues, which is what the management is most interested in. All the theoretical knowledge acquired through the course is put into practice. For the organisations from which the participants come, we jointly prepare plans (long-term and short-term), which is also the participants’ final task, and they receive an internationally recognised certificate for it. In the programme, they get to know good practice and the tools that been amassed in the 20 years of our network. Every week, we also have a guest who presents experience, examples and visions from his country.  Participants also then connect with this global network, through which they have access to knowledge from countries around the world. The course participants gain a broad base and a solid foundation for further building happiness at work in their companies.