I'm Praveen Suthrum. After 13 years of building and running NextServices, a healthcare technology/management company, the challenges and opportunities in the industry leap out at me. I also get early access to industry trends and changes.

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Workplace happiness: Real or myth? (4 lessons)

Workplace happiness: Real or myth? (4 lessons)

Back in 6th century BCE, Buddha meditated under a Bodhi tree to find answers to happiness and misery. Today, we can also look at data to find those answers.

Since 2012, the Earth Institute has published an annual report. It's called the World Happiness Report. Renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs, the director of the institute, co-authors this insightful analysis.

Naturally, all eyes point towards the world's wealthiest large country: U.S.

Money must surely buy happiness. It does. But only to remove certain sources of misery. America is referred to a story of "reduced happiness." As per the latest report, U.S. dropped in ranking from 3rd in 2007 to 14th in 2016.

Read: Restoring American Happiness (there are 5 interesting points)

Apparently, there's even a term for this: the Easterlin Paradox. Even though income per person increased 3-fold in U.S., measured happiness fell steadily. Apparently, people compare themselves with others. Reducing the effect income has on happiness.

This has interesting takeaways for growing organizations. Money helps but doesn't elevate employee satisfaction by itself. Because people are more than the sum of their parts.

Work-life is not distinct from other parts of people's lives. One affects the other.

The report analyzes data from questions such as this.

Overall, how satisfied are you with your life these days?

Your response to that question is likely to be a combination of these three areas:

  1. Economic factors (such as income and employment)
  2. Social factors (such as education and family life)
  3. Health (mental and physical)

These factors cut across geographies. In fact, I learnt that depression/anxiety is one of the biggest risks of misery. Across the developed (e.g. Britain) and the developing world (e.g. Indonesia).

When we develop organizations, we tend to draw the lines in the sand. Limiting ourselves to allocating work and paying a salary. Then we expect people to be happy and achieve great results at work. Well, as data shows it's not enough.

In the chapter, Key Determinants of Happiness and Misery, the report draws on distant influences. That go back to childhood, schooling, and family background. Historical factors affect present-day happiness.

Observe this insightful graphic on life satisfaction.

Yes, it's impossible to go back in time to fix someone's problems. But what we can do is be more empathetic.

We may never know someone's whole story. And that's okay. As long as we recognize that there could be a bigger story at play. More than we can comprehend.

Specifically, here are 7 factors that contribute to happiness at work.

  1. Wages
  2. Work-life balance
  3. High variety of work
  4. Job requires learning new things
  5. Wages depend on effort
  6. Can decide start/finish time
  7. Control over policy decisions of the organization

These are areas that leaders can influence.

4 Lessons in workplace happiness

With this week, 9 people in our organization completed 10 years. That excludes my co-founder and I. (We are over 150 today.)

Over the years, it's been a sheer joy to watch people grow.

A decade is a long time in someone's career. In today's competitive work environment, people have many options. They don't stay unless they experience moderate to high life satisfaction.

Here are a few lessons I've learnt through our journey.

#1: Most people don't end up where they start

Instead of hiring for specific skills, we look for longterm fit. Can we mould this person using her strengths? In ways that are mutually meaningful.

For example, our HR rockstar applied for a job in operations. We noticed that she had an innate ability to take care of others. Our director of technology didn't come with software experience. But he learnt to and has led the development of our entire product portfolio. Another colleague moved to marketing after operations. No link other than a flair for design. He learnt on the job and taught the rest of us.

Organizations grow and evolve. And so do people.

It's the job of leaders to help people discover their strengths. Trust them with challenges. And channel their energies in the right direction.

#2: A nurturing environment shapes people

People follow what others in the organization do. What you do with the first 50 defines culture for the next 50. We decided early on to outperform on training and development. Not just for job skills but life in general.

It's not unusual in our workshops to build sand castles on a beach. Work on non-profit causes. Trek in the mountains. Meditate or cook. We've even milked cows for fun! On the surface, these have no correlation to our work.

When people experience something new, they move through self-doubt. Learning something new about themselves. They expand. It somehow closes an emotional loop through deeper reflection.

Similarly, we fiercely respect knowledge and its acquisition. We reward it. Our clients recognize it in us.

Such an environment nurtures growth of the individual. Inner development connects the dots for overall wellbeing and satisfaction. Once a tone is set, it signals to new employees on what's expected.

#3: Repeated rituals align the team

Yes, we have our own rituals. Jalsa, our annual day is a time for people to express their talents in dance, drama, or song. Updates from clients during Monday meetings have been a relentless pursuit ritual for years. Every quarter, we openly review our financial performance and KPIs - good or bad.

When it someone's birthday, we see their workspace magically decked up. Annual reviews are a time for collective reflection on the growth of the individual.

Once we figure what works, we repeat. For example, we repeatedly place client needs first. After a point, the team gets it.

Culture begins to take shape when people do the right things without being told. The system becomes self-correcting.

#4: Transparency and friendliness are virtues

It's not an us vs them. It's all us. The more aligned we are as a team, the better we can serve our clients. Serving clients well helps us grow. Growing helps us sustain ourselves and thrive.

And that's that.

We spend so much of our lives at work. Why would we want to be anything other than friendly and open?

Imagine spending the majority of our lives in a place we dread, grudge, doubt, and complain. How distressing!

Here's been our mantra for sustaining a happy environment.

Develop people all the time.

Set clear rules of engagement.

Reinforce values constantly.

When in doubt, choose values.

Trust people with big challenges.

And set them free.

Yes, it works!

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