To Have Joy in the Workplace, There Must Be Justice for All

Joy and justice are two intertwined priorities we should all advance, but leaders sow distrust and unease when they don’t speak up and take a stand on urgent issues.

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We all want to create spaces full of joy, fulfillment, and happiness. But how do we do that in a world that feels divided, uncertain, and at times far from joyful?

For several years, our firm has been researching the best practices for building joy at work. We have learned about the importance of harmony, acknowledgment, impact, and purpose. But the COVID-19 pandemic and the persistent social injustice it exposed spurred us to think about joy at work around a new fulcrum: justice. Social movements like Black Lives Matter have put justice — and injustice — at the front of people’s minds. You can’t have joy without justice. That’s true at work, at home, and in the community.

Whether you’re leading an organization, a team, or your neighbors, joy and justice are two intertwined priorities we should all advance. When leaders don’t speak up and take a stand on urgent issues, they sow distrust and unease — and they certainly don’t lay the groundwork for joy.

The Joy Gap

In our original 2018 Joy@Work study, we found a stark gap between the levels of joy people expected to feel and the joy they actually experienced: Fifty-three percent of survey respondents who said they expected to feel joy at work reported that they did not actually experience it. Because most people spend a majority of their waking hours working, this joy gap has a pernicious effect on our overall joy, happiness, outlook, and well-being.

In 2021, we conducted our survey again. In just three years, the joy gap had widened substantially — from 53% to 61%. The pandemic has highlighted what’s important, at work and in life: taking care of one another, finding joy even in hardship, and looking for moments of meaning. The new mantra for leaders: Create spaces where people feel safe, seen, supported, and inspired.

The joy gap is concerning, but it offers us all unique opportunities for positive intervention. What can leaders do to improve outcomes while creating a baseline of justice, and to build the foundations for joy?

Common Barriers to Joy

Before leaders can start talking about positive change, they must address the toxic, joy-killing norms we should all leave behind. In our research, people cited excessive workloads and unrealistic expectations as their most pressing challenges and barriers at work.


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