5 ways to find joy at work: Top leaders share strategies 

Top leaders share with podcast Meet The Leader what's needed to build joy at work, from defining success, aligning values, embedding purpose in each interaction and more.

Top leaders share with podcast Meet The Leader what's needed to build joy at work, from defining success, aligning values, embedding purpose in each interaction and more. Image: Photo by Zac Durant on Unsplash

Linda Lacina
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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  • Meet The Leader is the podcast from the World Economic Forum that features the world’s top changemakers, showcasing the habits and traits effective leaders can’t work without.
  • Top leaders share with podcast Meet The Leader what's needed to build joy at work, from defining success, aligning values, embedding purpose in each interaction and more.

These days, the idea of joy at work doesn’t just seem elusive - it can sometimes seem almost impossible to imagine.

Years into the COVID crisis, workers are still juggling shifting demands at work and home, and they're also confronted by continued uncertainty as the world faces geopolitical conflict and the threat of a global recession.

As a result, it’s no wonder that some studies have found 3 in 5 workers reporting everything from lack of motivation and energy, with a third or more complaining of cognitive and physical exhaustion.

On this week’s Meet the Leader podcast, we collect insights from three leaders on how to recapture joy at work and fight back against stress that creeps into our day-to-day.

Here are some of the highlights - as well as transcribed excerpts of these conversations from the Annual Meeting in May.

Joy at Work: What Workers Can Do

1. Define your own success. Alex Liu, a managing partner and chairman at Kearney, says to capture joy, we must return to ‘first principles’ or go back to basics. "You must first define your success. From that you can draw boundaries and begin to mitigate the stresses that can burden mental health at at early stage," Liu says.

2. Seek the right stress. We cannot avoid stress entirely. After all, there is a difference between stress that challenges you and stress that exhausts you and wears you down. In fact, ADP Research Institute found that stress that's routine, chronic or that drains you "actually leads to lower engagement, less of a feeling of resilience," ADP's chief economist Nela Richardson says. Understanding the difference between stress that recharges you and stress that wears out is key to finding and maintaining joy.

3. Seek renewal. Curiosity and discovery are key to growth and learning - and these can help you recharge. This renewal can come in the form of a simple walk in the middle of the day or taking on a familiar task with new 'growth mindset'. A constant learning attitude can help keep you thinking in fresh ways and help you connect with what you like most in your work.

Joy at Work: What Leaders Can Do

4. Align actions and values. Do big and small decisions reflect and underscore your company’s stated values? Liu says you cannot have "joy with justice" without feeling you are valued and heard.

If there’s a disconnect in your organization, look at the decisionmakers, especially people in the middle of your organization. “Ask yourself, 'Who's in the room? Who's deciding the workplace rules? Who's leading and deciding the next promotion.'”

5. Build for joy. Design experiences to prioritize what teammates will find valuable and consider purpose in how your team interacts. For instance, Workday focuses on creating "moments that matter," says co-CEO Chano Fernandez, or moments with real purpose that help teams work better within their department or in the organization as a whole. From team meetings to town halls, carefully considered interactions help deepen individuals' understanding of their role in their team and how they can contribute, strengthening trust and each person's pride in their work.


This transcript, generated from speech recognition technology, has been edited for web readers, condensed for clarity, and may differ slightly from the audio.

ADP's Nela Richardson on What Stress Takes from Joy

Nela Richardson is the chief economist at ADP and the co-head of the ADP Research Institute. Her work requires digging into numbers, ones that explain how we work right now. Meet The Leader asked her for a stat that has surprised her, one that helped crystallize for her the shift that we should all be paying attention. The number that struck her has nothing to do with economics.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina:
Is there one statistic that has struck you?

Nela Richardson, Chief Economist, ADP: We at the ADP Research Institute, did a People at Work survey where we surveyed 33,000 workers in 17 countries to really get the feel of what the workers are going through, and the mindset and sentiment around work.

And we've done that at this scale for three years in a row, both before the pandemic, during the heart of the pandemic, and now hopefully mpw as the pandemic is waning, not everywhere, but around parts of the world. And the results are surprisingly consistent. I can go into a lot of them. but the one that really surprised me is mental health challenges. The fact that so many of the global workforce, not only reported that they were struggling with stress at work at least once a week, but that their work was actually impacted by that stress in a negative way.

ADPRI employers strategies help employees mental health stress toll joy at work
Says ADPRI, most employers have strategies to help employees with mental health, but unless the causes are tackled, such good intentions will be undermined. Image: ADP Research Institute, ADPRI People at Work 2022: A Global Workforce

First of all, people don't talk negatively about themselves in surveys generally. They just don't. They'll talk about their bosses, their jobs, their kids, maybe even their spouses, but they won't say things that look bad. But the fact that this was a globally consistent result was surprising to me. It was also surprising because before the pandemic, I don't think there would have been an open conversation about this.

And now it has to be part of the conversation. And the good news is companies are stepping up. They're taking that conversation seriously. They're offering some stress breaks and meditation classes and a little more flexibility to help with the stressors of life. And we know that the pandemic amplified the stressors, but they were always present for working families.

So, I actually regard this firstly as a surprise, a sad reality of the moment we're in, in terms of all the challenges that people are facing globally, but even in our own local neighbourhoods, but also pointing to the possibilities and opportunities to make the workplace better by allowing people to bring their whole selves to work and giving them the tools to cope with these challenges in order to make the workplace better.

Have you read?

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: I think many people aren't making this connection at all. What's something people are overlooking that will impact the economy?

Nela Richardson: In a separate study that was conducted by the ADP Research Institute, it was found that people who had the right amount of stress (because stress can be good -it leads to better performance - ask any person who has to perform for a living) a little bit of stress is not a bad thing. But stress that’s routine, that's chronic, that drains you, actually leads to lower engagement, less of a feeling of resilience. And this is what should get every company executive’s ears open in a time of labour shortages: it could lead to people leaving the workplace, either because of physical conditions tied to stress or because of mental stress that leads them to look for other work. And that's why it's such a pressing issue. So as a company, there are many balls in the air that you have to keep your eye on, but the health of your worker -- the pandemic has taught us that that should be central.



Kearny's Alex Liu on Building for Joy

Alex Liu, a managing partner and chairman at consultancy Kearney, told Meet The Leader at the Annual Meeting that the 'purpose gap' is one of the biggest business challenges he is seeing. Bridging that for workers will take setting boundaries and finding new ways to learn and spark a curiosity. But for leaders, it will mean helping people know that their contributions are valued and that they are being listened to. Here's Alex on the changes he's seeing and the connection between purpose and joy at work.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: The role of business is shifting, a lot of people have been talking about that, of course, this week. In your mind, what's been the most compelling change, maybe over the last five to 10 years?

Alex Liu: Obviously the digital transformation has continued forward. It's transforming the world. There's still great inequity in terms of who is on this side of the digital divide versus the other.

Obviously, the climate urgency has really accelerated. It's top of the agenda here [Davos], and it should be the top of the agenda in all constituencies. It's an existential issue. It's something that is front and centre here in our company and in the work that we do. How do we transition the entire world economy companies, people, teammates, to be better climate citizens? That's something that's quite different than two years ago, 5-10 years ago.

People are the source of solutions and therefore we need to unleash that untapped energy.

Alex Liu, Managing Partner and Chairman, Kearney

And the other trend is to focus on people for people. Not just parts of a cog of a machine or an economy or an offshoring exercise. There has been a greater appreciation that people are the source of solutions and therefore we need to unleash that untapped energy. And they are also under unprecedented stress because of the things that we've been talking about. The mental health of individuals is so linked to the mental health of the company and the countries and communities that we're in. That's why I've spoken a lot about joy at work. Why would you settle for anything less?

You're born happy, you go to school happy, your parents made you happy. You go to your first job happy, but we see this huge joy gap. It's okay to be relentless and ambitious and career minded and feed your family. But you also need to find, in the moment, those sources of loving what you do, loving where you are, loving yourself. And I think that is the key to unlocking the energy to solve all these problems. The problems we know, the solutions are there, but the people are the ones that are exhausted.

It's too hard. It's too hard to fix something that you've been working on and working at the same company for many years. It's hard to promote someone who doesn't look like you. It's hard to feel you're part of a cancel culture. So, these are all things that are happening in the workplace.

You can't have joy without a sense of justice. You can't have joy without a sense of your own purpose or being in a company which you believe has institutional purpose, like solving some of the problems here at WEF.

You can't have joy at work without a sense of justice. You can't have joy without a sense of your own purpose or being in a company which you believe has institutional purpose

Alex Liu, Managing Partner and Chairman, Kearney

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: What's overlooked with joy at work? You mentioned something that I think people don't think about — that, you need to keep this safe space, you can't have joy without justice, you can't have that equity. But people don't think about joy and how it impacts them and how it impacts stress. Why is that? What's being overlooked?

Alex Liu: Well, part of it is probably situational. I think we've got these companies, if I focus on the workplace, and maybe you could extrapolate to communities where you have all these layers and silos and metrics and routines and meetings that drain the soul. If you combine that with a non-reflective or the 'Great Reflection', yeah. Right. Which is we've had the Great Resignation, I call it the Great Reflection. The last couple of years, given all the stress, being alone and with ourselves, we're saying, well, why am I doing this? So, the question of why is coming back. There's probably been unnecessary stress to the workplace, just because of the legacy things that have happened.

The external stuff has created all this added layer of stress, racial justice, the geopolitical situation, actual war, climate uncertainty. So those are the reasons why joy has been kind of pushed aside a bit. I guess the next question is: well, what is the antidote to that? How do you find joy?

I think you go to first principles. I mean, you have to first self-define your own success. Then you can draw boundaries. You will have less mental health issues if you understand the difference between stress and boredom. You want to be challenged, you just don’t want to be stressed. That allows you to find a place to work in which allows you to be yourself.

Obviously, we want leaders to be custodians and stewards of a just workplace. We want our leaders to be authentic and communicate their belief systems so that they believe that they're moving in the right direction. They want the companies that they work in, and are associated with, by the way, to be positive, to be speaking out on issues that matter to them.

If you get multiple levels of people saying it's okay to be authentic and values-based, and true to yourself, those are the preconditions for a great team. You have role clarity. You have harmony, you have acknowledgment, because you’re seen. And you also have praise and impact, because you're obviously working more energetically for something you believe in. You'll probably have a better winning record if you do.

I think the workers and the leaders need to come together on what is our workplace? What is our purpose? Do we need to be together? Connected?

I mean, one thing I would say to reduce stress, to that point, is to just eliminate meetings. I think there's a lot of unnecessary Zoom, being digital zombies, mechanical, transactional, falsely productive sessions. We could liberate our workforce by just saying: “Be where you are, come into the office. Obviously, we'd like to see you. Obviously, you want a person-to-person contact. We're not going to have meetings. We trust you.”


Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: Is there also a sense that people should maybe build for joy? One of the things you were talking about was you can't have joy without justice, can’t have joy without equity, these things. And if a company, maybe there's not fairness in promotions or if people don't feel like they have the flexibility that they need for their particular situation, then they're not going to have that. If companies create their policies with the purpose of joy, do you think that that is maybe a helpful mindset? That you're not trying to solve for a negative, you're trying to solve for a positive. How useful would that be?

Alex Liu: I think it's great. I think what I try to do is say: “Listen, I want championship teams, I want winning teams. They're serving customers better than our competitors are and we're helping each other in ways that no one else can do.” And if you look at any analogy on the team side, they have that, they know what their role is. They don't waste time. They have each other's back.

Now in the workplace, the issue really is sometimes not the leader. They may embrace joy, we want you to work less, have the right boundaries, have a fulfilled agenda. And it's probably not at the bottom level, the next generation, let’s say, of workers who believe that this is what I expect. I'm not going to join you for life unless I feel that you will deliver this every day. It's the folks in the middle, the folks that grew up in the old world, so to speak, and now they have this tidal wave of problems to also have.

So ultimately, it's about power — who's in the room, who's deciding the workplace rules, who's promoting the right people, who's leading and deciding the next promotion, who's resourcing it and who pays? And I think there is unnecessary stress from lack of progress on some of the social agenda and the people agenda and the purpose agenda, because the folks in the middle, that big part of the bell curve, don't get it or don't want to get it.

So, the role of the leader is to unlock that and say: “No, I'm serious. I want us to get rid of the matrices. I'm going to de-layer. I want to simplify organization. I want to eliminate unnecessary meetings. I don't want you to working 18 hours a day on whatever technology we're on remotely. I respect your boundaries. I respect your different path. I respect your identity.”

People energy is the most renewable energy resource and our obligation is to find ways to unleash that, to unlock that.

Alex Liu, Managing Partner and Chairman, Kearney

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: What's a trait that you depend on in order to make that possible with the people that you work with?

Alex Liu: Well, I try to be joyful but relentless. I think there's the right balance. You know, listen, I'm still very ambitious. Like many people in the consulting profession, we're all insecure overachievers, but you need to do this with a sense of balance and boundaries, and knowing what you love.

So, every day, regardless of if I'm landing late at night, or waking up in the morning in the winter or the summer, my first activity is outside. I go outside for 15, 20 minutes, a little jog, a walk, a bike, and I feel like it's a new day. So, whatever happened the day before, no stress. And I'm preparing mentally for the new day.

You have to have a constant sense of renewal. Maybe that's why I'm in consulting because you know, every problem is different, every week is different, every client is different. Every team is different for that matter. So, there's a constant state of curiosity. So, the secret from my perspective is to have that constant learning attitude. Every day is going to be a new learning experience. That keeps me fresh, I believe.


Workday's Chano Fernandez on 'moments that matter'

Chano Fernandez is co-CEO of Workday, a company that creates cloud applications for finance and human resources. He talked to Meet The Leader about how leaders can embed a sense of purpose into every day in-person interactions, all to create moments that matter. This doesn't just create a sense of 'FOMO' or Fear of Missing Out about what happens at work. It also builds trust as each interaction makes the most of every person's time, building a deeper understanding of people's roles and their purpose in an organization.

Creating 'moments that matter' can be key to building the trust needed for joy at work, says Chano Fernandez, Co-Chief Executive Officer, Workday,
Creating 'moments that matter' can be key to building the trust needed for joy at work, says Chano Fernandez, Co-Chief Executive Officer, Workday, Image: Ciaran McCricakard

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: How do you create moments that matter?

Chano Fernandez, Co-CEO, Workday: We need to acknowledge that what worked in the past, isn't necessarily going to work going forward. I think we're all trying to create what works in our organization and create those moments that matter, and fear of missing out for our own employee base.

But we are not dictating what those times are going to be. We're trying to work with our management and teach our managers what are those. Are they those when you have brainstorms? Are they those when you strategy sessions? When you're kicking off projects? For the financial teams, might be when they're closing the books, for the sales teams might be when they're closing the quarters.

What is really important to you and how you as a manager identify those and bring the things together to collaborate, right? And create that bonding and collaboration, because that way we create trust. And honestly, it's very difficult to have teamwork and impact without having trust and without having an environment where you can feel and have safe conversations.

And we are trying to be creating and recreating those good and positive experiences with some fun around those positive experiences as well, in terms of how we bring people back to the office.

Personally, I've been doing a number of town halls on many offices across the world, especially north America and Europe, going to Asia during the summer. And that has been intentional in terms of how do we create moments where employees come back to the office, have a coffee, have lunch, have an interaction with other colleagues. Because you know, we talk a lot about learning and getting with my manager, but people learn a lot about peer-to-peers as well. And having those basic interactions with peers.

How do we feel as a more tenure employee that have a responsibility and accountability to support proper onboarding for newer employees? And we've been appealing to some of those things that have been working with our employees because they feel a great attachment to the company for the culture we create.

So they know that this culture is responsible of all things. It's not my culture or my co-CEO's culture. It's them creating the culture. So they feel responsible for how do we make that culture successful and nurture it with the new employees that are joining the company. That creates further sense of purpose for coming back to the office on top of what they are, let's say, doing in their daily tasks, older colleagues that we haven't seen for for quite a long time.

The feedback we are getting. For example, we do our People Leadership summit, where we train during a couple of days, new managers, either outside of Workday or being promoted in Workday on culture and values for two days. The last couple of years we've been doing it remote. The feedback this year is being overwhelmingly positive. It's always in the high 90s, I can tell you it's been 2- 3% higher. And I think it's not just because we've done a better workshop this year. I think it is because we've done it face-to-face and people were so happy to reconnect and reengage with colleagues. That is what created the difference.

So we're trying, as we're getting to a safer world, to do all these things that we were doing. They do matter, doing them face-to-face instead of remote.


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