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Feb 10, 2022 | by Prof. Jan Emmanuel De Neve

Insights from the largest worker wellbeing data set

Being in a good quality job is one of the key drivers of personal wellbeing. As a Centre, we have been developing evidence in the field of work and wellbeing, so leaders know what they can confidently do. We have created tools on how to measure wellbeing in the workplace and share expert knowledge by convening interested parties. This blog highlights some interesting new research in the field.

When the U.S. based job seeker website Indeed launched the Work Happiness Score in March 2020 their goal was to give job seekers a window into ‘how people are feeling at work – to help job seekers find where they belong, and help employers create better workplaces’.

The Work Happiness Score is now the world’s largest work happiness study and has collected the largest data set on worker wellbeing in the world. Prof. Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, director of Oxford University’s Wellbeing Research Centre is an advisor to the project and shares some key takeaways from the research.  


Two years ago, U.S. job seeker website Indeed developed a survey to measure employee experiences at work. It asks if workers feel happy in their jobs, but also digs deeper to examine the role of stress, learning opportunities, and a sense of belonging among other factors that can drive personal wellbeing at work

The survey has currently been taken by over 5 million U.S. workers and is now the largest data set of its kind in the world. This makes it a unique resource to advance the research on workplace wellbeing and helps job seekers understand worker wellbeing at different companies, which may lead them to adjust their job searches accordingly. In turn, this will encourage companies to prioritise employee wellbeing in order to continue effectively attracting talent.

What does the research tell us?

We know that work is central to who we are as people, and a key driver of personal wellbeing, which is why research like this is important. We also know that wellbeing is lower during our working age

Indeed began gathering happiness data in late 2019, not long before COVID-19 arrived in the U.S. so this gives us an opportunity to look at the impact of the pandemic before, during and, hopefully one day, after. 

Worker happiness shifted over the course of the pandemic:

  • Rising anxiety in early 2020, when the scope of COVID-19 became apparent. 
  • In the Spring, when the government intervened through lockdowns and other support, the data indicate a ‘sense of relief’ among those that kept their jobs. 
  • Now, one year on, workers are more unhappy than they were before. 

Work provides structure, social network and social identity and when you lose your job, you lose all of it.

For workplace wellbeing, belonging outranks pay

We identified 12 drivers of worker wellbeing: belonging, energy, appreciation, purpose, achievement, compensation, support, learning, inclusion, flexibility, trust and management. 

By analysing employee responses to questions about these key drivers in the Work Happiness Score surveys (taken before and during the COVID-19 pandemic), we can pinpoint several trends in what makes people happy at work—during both good times and challenging ones. 

Interestingly, while people believe pay is the top predictor of happiness, in reality, the social elements of work are far more important. Belonging is the top driver of wellbeing, while pay falls in the middle of the pack. 

We can also learn how these drivers of happiness change during times of crisis. We found that not only did the highest-ranked determinants before the crisis — belonging, flexibility and inclusion — hold onto the top three spots, but they became even more important during the pandemic. At the same time, purpose, achievement, learning and appreciation became slightly less so. 

Supportive management also became more significant to workers during the pandemic. This makes sense, since workers need to feel safe and supported in difficult times. 

Flexibility is here to stay, requires planning and structure

The pandemic also led to an unprecedented rise in remote work, and the full impact of this shift remains to be seen. 

Flexibility brings obvious benefits, enabling employees to better balance work and personal responsibilities, such as caregiving, while reducing or eliminating commutes and the expenses associated with it. But while there are short-term benefits to working from home, the long-term drawbacks impact the social side of work, particularly the key driver of belonging.

The loss of belonging is also detrimental to the intellectual elements of work. Innovation and creativity require openness, spontaneity and collaboration — and those chance encounters in the hallway, before a meeting or over coffee no longer happen, because everything has to be planned.

Coordinated flexibility, a hybrid approach that offers the best of both worlds might be the way forward. For example, a team could coordinate to come to the office three days per week for purposeful interactions such as brainstorming, client meetings and conferences. They would use the remaining days to work from home on projects that require more individual focus, such as writing, emails or analysis.

Ultimately if employees feel great working at the company, then that is good for them and their families.

Join our next Business Leaders’ webinar on 16th February at 1pm

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