Decoding Happiness at Work: A Conversation with HR Expert Bert Schreurs

Back to overview
  • 05 min. reading
  • Workplace

What is the future of work, and how can it be happier? Ariad brought together 4 experts to share their thoughts, give insights into how they're working to make their teams and workplaces better, and what will be important factors in building the next phase of a better working life.

On the topic of happiness at work, Bert Schreurs has a lot to say. A professor in HR Management at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, his take on happiness in the workplace is one that is evidently rooted in empirical data and research.


What exactly is “happiness” in the workplace?

Bert differentiates two types of happiness: short and long term. “The first view is one where you will see happiness as a very momentary emotion, like being satisfied. Enjoyment. It's very short lived. That form of happiness is not so closely related to performance. But there is another type of happiness, happiness that is more sustained, enduring, which has to do with growth and meaningfulness. When you feel that kind of happiness, that is going to lead to persistence, to better wellbeing, healthier behaviour, but also more productivity and better performance.”

The second type of happiness mentioned by Bert is of keen interest to corporate environments, both for employers and employees. Bert’s tip on how to foster that kind of wellbeing comes directly from scientific findings: “You need to provide autonomy, create a sense of belonging, and a sense of competence.” These fundamental needs, stemming from the Self-Determination Theory, actively pave the way for overall wellbeing and fulfilment in our work and life.

In the workplace, he suggests that people in position to make a change do the following: “First, provide sufficient autonomy so that people can really endorse the behaviours they choose. Second, create a sense of belonging, a kind of community feeling. People feel cared for, they feel that they are loved. And the third thing is the sense of competence. We all want to excel in something. When we know that we're good at something that also brings about a sense of happiness.

According to Bert, applying this ABC theory (autonomy, belonging, competence) to the workplace is not merely a moral imperative, it’s a strategic move that will yield the best long-term results: “If we can create such a workplace, a workplace where there is autonomy, where there is belongingness, and competence, you will get a happy workforce and a more productive workforce.”

Creating a workplace that addresses these fundamental needs promises a happier and, consequently, more productive workforce. However, implementing these principles is not without its challenges, as highlighted by other panel members. Post-Covid, Bert observed a shift in leadership attitudes, noting a growing need to take back control of employees: “Instead of giving them autonomy, suddenly we invited them back to the office… There was this tendency to start controlling, monitoring their behaviours. That goes against the ABC*”.


Happiness at work- Bert Schreurs


How can we monitor workplace wellbeing?

In response, Bert advocates for a different approach to monitoring workplace dynamics, far away from the micromanagement trend of post-Covid times:“I think it’s important to monitor what is happening in the workplace” Bert says, adding that measuring engagement is a good place to start. Engagement - which he describes as being dedicated to one’s job or organisation, experiencing a sense of “flow” by being deeply immersed in work, and feeling full of energy - is best monitored through “pulse measures” such as surveys that you could launch after implementing changes, in order to measure the impact of said changes.

Next to engagement, Bert stresses that business can and should also monitor exhaustion: “It’s not just about the positive […] we have to be realistic and also look at the negative”. Once again, surveys (especially third party surveys to encourage transparency while preserving anonymity) are a great way to gather insights from employees. “People work hard and there are increasingly higher numbers of burnout. So it's also important to keep track of the more negative sides of wellbeing. ” 

Monitoring wellbeing is indeed an essential tool that helps shape changes that actually generate impact. But for Bert, showing genuine interest in improving happiness in the workplace isn’t the only important piece of the puzzle. Acting upon the result is also crucial: “Measuring is one thing, but if you measure then you need to take action, not just measure for the sake of measuring.You need to act upon the results, that's the important signal that you can give that as an organisation, you care about wellbeing and that you're willing to take action.”


What about motivation?

As we moved to the topic of motivation, another key factor of workplace happiness, Bert made quite the statement: “we now agree that there are very few jobs where we purely enjoy our work, there isn’t actual intrinsic motivation [at play in the workplace]. But we like our job, we think it is useful and we identify with it”. 

He explained that it is in fact autonomous motivation rather than intrinsic motivation that we should be interested in: “[When] you have a leader, a supervisor, who doesn’t explain the reasons why you need to do things, or you're just working for the money, [...] that's bad. You cannot really persist. 

So it's about quality of motivation. According to him, the quality of the context given around a job will have the biggest impact on motivation. “If we can use our strengths, identify with our job and what we’re doing, that creates some kind of what we don't call intrinsic motivation, but autonomous motivation, where you endorse, you accept the job, and that's where you get your energy from.”

Good context provides dimension and purpose to your work and helps you identify with what you do on a daily basis. As managers, it is therefore important to share context, and as workers, it is equally important to seek and ask for it. Then and only then can a new and better form of motivation arise where you not only accept but actually endorse your job and are autonomously motivated.

These insights offer a roadmap to shape a future workplace that is not only productive but also genuinely fulfilling. When we asked Bert what he’d like us to remember from the discussion, he simply focused on the importance of the ABC and invited us to look at the positive. 

By embracing autonomy, building a sense of community, and valuing competence, organisations can foster a positive environment that benefits both employees and the overall work culture. In this way, Bert’s advice paves the way for a happier, more balanced, and forward-looking workplace.


Learn more

Curious to learn more insights from industry leaders on happiness at work? 

Watch the whole discussion now!

Back to overview