As the 4th of July marks the anniversary of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, I found myself reflecting on the well-known phrase in the introduction to the Declaration – “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.  These are described as “inalienable rights” given to all human beings by their Creator, and which Governments ought to protect. So, what relevance does this have to the world of work and the clients that I advise as an employment lawyer, you might ask?

The significance of life and liberty are perhaps self-evident.  But I was struck by the “pursuit of happiness” as an inalienable right.  With the pace of change in modern workplaces and the toxic disputes that can escalate quickly in employee relations cases, increasingly I have seen happiness become the focal point, particularly for the employee. The importance of feeling happy at work can often be overlooked by employers, fixated on performance, results and the bottom line.  As the author Daniel Pink wrote in Drive, the surprising truth about what motivates employees at work is less about rewards, money or even fear of punishment and more about autonomy, feeling valued and having a purpose. There is an intrinsic value, then, in feeling happy at work.  It’s good for business.

In my work advising senior executives in relation to their own interests, I regularly see the flipside to happiness and how debilitating it can be.  I recently advised a senior professional who consulted me about problems he was having at work.  When we met he was very focussed on what seemed to me to be quite a narrow point relating to his service agreement and how it was being interpreted by the HR department.  There was also a sense of a culture of bullying at leadership level. My training in mediation instinctively led me to ask my client the questions – “what do you want to achieve from this?” and “what would success look like to you?”.  Half expecting the typical answers of retribution, financial compensation or even the ‘point of principle’, instead my client paused.  After a period of reflection, he said “I just want to stop feeling so angry.  And I want my wife to stop feeling angry”.

It was a powerful answer and really struck a chord with me.  A workplace dispute can be debilitating. Not everyone takes their work home at night and some are better than others at switching off.  But, when you’re not happy at work, it can eat away at your personal life and relationships with those that you care about.  Anger is increasingly the main emotion that I hear employees point to when faced with a grievance or problem at work. The same is true for managers angered by an underperforming or militant worker.   And yet it is said that “holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

I was privileged to hear the world-renowned mediator Ken Cloke speak in Edinburgh a few years ago at a conference hosted by CORE Mediation.  He told the story of the young child who runs out into the road without looking.  A car screeches to a halt to avoid colliding with her.  What is her parent’s first reaction to witnessing this scene?  Anger.  They shout and scold the child for not being more careful; for not looking before crossing the road as they have been told time and time again.  But is the parent really angry at the child?  What lies beneath the emotion of anger?  Anger itself is superficial.  There is always something deeper at play.  Anger may be more memorable, but beneath the anger, the deeper feeling is fear.  Beneath fear is the perception of what could have happened to the child (loss, grief and guilt).  And at the base level, underneath all of those emotions, is love.  This is what the parent feels first and foremost for their child – love is what drives all of their emotions.

No-one gets angry about what they don’t care about!  In my client’s case, beneath the anger was a fear that his reputation would be tarnished by the way he was being treated and undermined at work.  He did not love his job, but he absolutely loved his career and the reputation that he had deservedly built over many years in business. Getting to ground, that is what mattered to him.  Not the dispute with his employer, or the terms of his contract of employment.  Central to getting a result for my client was to focus on what really mattered – ensuring that he felt valued and had a sense of purpose, working for an organisation that respected him and ultimately providing for a family that he loves.  That is the pursuit of happiness.