IMPACT20: The National Conversation Report: An interview with Matt Phelan

Matt Phelan

How do you create a happier workplace? The co-founder and head of global happiness at The Happiness Index shares his views on the importance of “inconsequential chats”, listening to your employees and the simple act of saying thank you.

On happiness

For me, it's freedom – in my work and my personal life. I know it’s a simple thing but any kind of infringement on that impacts my mental health. 

On communication

From our data, we’ve seen an increased need for people to communicate during the pandemic. There’s a really amazing study called Blue Zones that looks into life longevity. It shows that chats that may feel inconsequential at the time – with the taxi driver or the person who serves your coffee – are actually really important for our wellbeing. Our data also shows that some people are happier at the moment. That tells me that the office didn't work for everyone and we have an opportunity to build a new future of work. 

On employee engagement

Professor Jeremy Dawson at Sheffield University found that if you go into an NHS ward that has unhappier or less engaged staff, you're more likely to die. It follows that if an employee isn’t happy, they’re not going to produce their best work.

Alex Edmunds, a professor of finance at London Business School, studied 28 years of data and found that firms with high employee satisfaction outperform their peers by 2.3% to 3.8% per year in long-run stock returns ( that’s 89% to 184% cumulative), even after controlling for other factors that drive returns. Moreover, the results suggest that it’s employee satisfaction that causes good performance, rather than good performance allowing a firm to invest in employee satisfaction.

If you run a business, you're morally obligated – and financially incentivised – to go out and research what makes people tick. And once you understand that, you need to do something about it.

On the drawbacks of digital

When you're feeling down, what do you do? You talk to people about it – and that process helps. But in a digital world, you don’t have to speak to anyone; you can do all the research yourself. That practice of gathering information can isolate you even more and send you on a downward spiral.

On gender stereotypes

Suicide remains the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK today. The Man-Up campaign around male suicide busted open the issues of toxic masculinity, gender stereotypes and expressing emotion. It opened up a lot of conversations that needed to be had.

On telling stories

Storytelling is hugely important. If you present data with a story, people are 80% more likely to remember it. When you hear a story from someone you know who gave up alcohol or tried to kill themselves, for example, it’s much more powerful because you can relate to it.

On slowing down

The positive thing to come out of this pandemic is that it has given us an opportunity to slow down and reevaluate our lifestyles. I have a coach who specialises in neuroscience and the number one lesson he gave me is, “Listen to your body”. It will tell you what’s working and what's not working for you.

On normalising mental health conversations

When we start a call, we always ask, “How's your mental fitness?” So it wouldn’t be unusual for someone to say, “I can't do this meeting because my mental fitness is low.” By using the term “mental fitness”, we have made mental health conversations part of our every day.

On gratitude

One of the top ways to make your employees happy is to say “thank you”. And that doesn’t cost a thing.

To create a more inclusive society, I’d…

… make sure every organisation has a culture of listening. Around 60 million people in America reported being bullied at work; that’s roughly the entire population of the UK. At the moment, too many companies are ignoring that.