Cultivating happiness in work: Time for a new approach

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Some of you know that I am not only an owner-operator but a chaplain for drivers and a student of psychology working on my Ph.D. Recently, I earned my certification in the Science of Happiness at Work via online course-work from Berkeley. It was something I wanted to do to bolster opportunities to help other drivers live a more satisfying life. While I already had insight in the area with my research on positive psychology and life coaching, I learned a great deal. For instance:

While most people spend about half their total time at work, for over-the-road truckers it is a good deal higher in most cases. Science has shown that if people are not doing well at work, it has physical consequences in nervous system and brain function. All that, of course, filters back into work performance. Studies show that most people are not happy at work, but most at least get to go home nights to their families. It’s not that simple for the trucker, working twice as hard for generally a good deal less money today compared to 35 years ago. Add to that mounting stress from weather, breakdowns, increased traffic and erratic behavior with distraction on the road, the search for parking, new regs and that ever-ticking 14-hour clock — tempers get shorter. Families are doubly stressed.

For truckers who already have the deck stacked against them when trying to maintain their health, poor work performance, in other words, can have deadly results.

This reality goes largely unaddressed by work support structures and drivers begin to feel more like a number, or a cog in a giant machine that is eating away their lives.

For the most part, companies don’t concern themselves with how a driver feels. They don’t seem to care if the driver is happy. If the miles keep adding up, the equipment isn’t damaged, and the driver hasn’t put in notice to quit, all is assumed to be well. Still, turnover rates and scientific data suggest that kind of attitude is a disservice to the company and the bottom line. Companies seem willing to use psychology in an attempt to control hiring and thereby reduce turnover — as a student of psychology, I find that encouraging.

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Yet psychology is a wide field, encompassing basic human factors as well as mental health and its assessments. Somewhere in between these two spheres is the science of happiness. Since the early 1990s, the notion of emotional intelligence has emerged in research as a key to happiness, and in 1995 Daniel Goleman published “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.” The book laid out how emotional intelligence – or EQ – could be a better predictor of success at work than IQ, turning the corporate world upside down.

Since that time, many in business have considered EQ before hiring CEOs who will direct their companies into the future. Now, the science of happiness at work is beginning to show that people who are happier at work are more productive and more attentive to details – both are two things that can benefit any trucker.

Perhaps it is time for trucking companies to look at their task differently. Examine the workplace structure, identify the obstacles in the way of supporting truckers in finding significance, meaning, joy, and (yes) happiness at work. It is the same for everyone: how people think about their work and how they define their identities related to the work they do give them purpose and increase the value of the work to them. This, in turn, cultivates gratitude as well as effort. It is a fact: drivers are working harder today than a generation ago. As I’ve written before, we only need to look at recent events to see the stress levels in the industry have increased. The very least companies can do is recognize the risk, make mental health or coaching services available for drivers, and provider instruction on techniques drivers can use to reduce their stress levels.

Truckers have been called the backbone of the economy. Many are most certainly the lifeblood of their families. Companies have a responsibility to the country, the driver, their families, the safety of all on the roads, and to their own bottom line. A little investment in creating a work environment that cultivates happiness and satisfaction can only pay out tenfold, in my view.

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