Happy Feat

By Michael Hardy | Fall 2015

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Matt Bloom’s research program examines how to make the workplace a more rewarding experience

In the 1990s, when Matt Bloom was working long hours as a business consultant at Arthur Young, and later at Lehman Brothers, he used to dread coming home to a find a message on his answering machine.

“I remember being so fearful of checking my machine when I saw the light blinking, because I was afraid it was going to be my boss saying I have to come in, or that something’s wrong. I remember pushing that button and hearing his voice, and my heart sinking.”

He wasn’t alone. Most of his colleagues, despite their comfortable salaries, seemed just as unhappy at their jobs as he was. “I was surprised how many people viewed work as a negative experience,” said Bloom, now an associate management professor. “It seemed rare to bump into anyone who said, ‘I love my work.’” Bloom ended up leaving the corporate world to earn a Ph.D. in human resource studies at Cornell University. In 1996, he joined the Mendoza College of Business, where he’s taught ever since. But his bad experience as a consultant stuck with him. Did work really have to be so miserable?

To find out, he launched the Wellbeing at Work Program in 2004, which focuses on studying people in the “helping professions” — teachers, health-care workers, human rights attorneys, humanitarian workers, even members of the clergy. “These are very challenging jobs — working in war zones, working with people who are dying, educators working in very under-resourced schools,” he said. Yet the people Bloom met seemed remarkably happy. When he asked why, they often cited intangibles such as “meaning,” “purpose” or “spirituality.”

Bloom then took his findings and applied them to the working world at large. What’s missing from most jobs, he came to believe, was precisely that sense of mission that the teachers and ministers he’d met had talked about: “In economics literature, in management literature, there are almost no studies whatsoever on the transcendent or spiritual or religious aspects of work. But then you look at polls, and something like 80 percent of people around the world claim that religion or spirituality is an important part of their lives. If you consider that most of those people work, it’s like we don’t know anything about the interplay between these two really important parts of life for most people.”

It’s easy to understand how someone might find a sense of purpose in working for Doctors Without Borders or setting up a soup kitchen. But how is the average worker supposed to find transcendence in the modern corporate workplace?

Bloom said it all begins with employers recognizing the humanity of their employees. “They have to understand that the whole person comes into the workplace,” he said. “They’re not just an accountant, they’re not just an engineer, they’re not just the job that they fulfill. They come with their non-work life, their religious or spiritual dimension. And those are at play in the workplace, whether the employer recognizes them or not.”

If they want the best from their employees, managers have to help them tap into the fundamental human desire for meaning, he said, citing Whole Foods and Zappos as companies that place an emphasis on corporate values that employees can rally around. “When people can connect their core values to the work they do, they find more meaning in the work they do. They also unleash capacities for creativity and performance.”

Although his research shows that employees who feel emotionally invested in their company tend to be better at their jobs, Bloom emphasized that he considers workplace well-being an end in itself, not just a means for companies to become more productive.

“My colleagues and I regard well-being as an intrinsic good. Its implications for performance — ‘Are happier people better performers?’— does not substantiate its value. Human well-being has intrinsic worth. And our public policy and our economic measurements seem to completely overlook that dimension.” Bloom endorses the idea of establishing a national measure of happiness in America, as Great Britain did in 2010, to supplement dry economic statistics like GDP.

During the past decade, Bloom’s research has received growing national attention. The Templeton Religion Trust and the Lilly Endowment have provided grants totaling almost $5 million to fund his research on workplace happiness, especially in relation to the clergy. (See box.) He’s also an increasingly in-demand speaker: Earlier this year, he gave the keynote address at the annual meeting of Volunteers of America.

When asked what specific steps businesses could take to improve their workers’ lives, Bloom cited the importance of allowing employees to take a break from work at night, so they don’t live in fear of a late-night phone call from the boss, as he did as a young consultant. As the director of the Wellbeing at Work Program, Bloom has a rule that his students and researchers don’t have to answer emails in the evening. He also makes a point of taking his vacation days each year as a way of encouraging those at the research program to do the same.

“You have to allow people to disconnect from work — a 24/7 job is just not sustainable,” he said. “It’s hard to do that in a society where technology makes us so accessible, but our research suggests that people need some disengagement. They need to completely forget about work, and they need real vacations. Polls show that unused vacation is increasing every year, because people don’t feel like they can take vacations.”

Bloom’s next major project is a longitudinal study that will follow people over a period of years to focus on well-being. He said that although corporate America has made some strides in valuing worker happiness, he’s dismayed by how many people he meets who still say they hate their job. “We live in a very prosperous country, and yet all the data that we have suggest that most people aren’t happy in their work, don’t find meaning in it,” he said. “That continues to surprise and trouble me.”    

Wellbeing at Work: a snapshot

The Wellbeing at Work Program, led by Associate Management Professor Matt Bloom, seeks to offer practical solutions and insights to help people thrive in the workplace.

  • Founded: 2004  
  • Full-time staff: 10    
  • Undergraduate research assistants: 5
  • Grants: $2.5 million from The Lilly Endowment Inc. and $2.4 million from the Templeton Religion Trust
  • Research Projects:
    • Caring for Caregivers: Focuses on the well-being of people working for nonprofits, NGOs, and other groups dedicated to helping the underprivileged.
    • Flourishing in Ministry: Focuses on the well-being of clergy and their families.
    • Lifelong Wellbeing: Applies the lessons learned from studying caregivers and the clergy to improving the work lives of ordinary people.
  • For more information:
    Twitter: @NDWellbeing                    
    Facebook: Well Being at Work            
    Website: wellbeing.nd.edu