Happy, Healthy, and Hard at Work

Every election brings with it odes to the “job creators” and long-winded discourses on importance of entrepreneurship, and this one was no different. After all, we know that entrepreneurs create jobs, and that employment figures drive election results. And although it turns out those are both partial truths, it IS true that entrepreneurship is good for the economy. But is entrepreneurship good for entrepreneurs?

It’s an interesting question that scholars like Chuck Eesley (in my research group) and others are working to unravel. It’s been established, for instance, that the financial returns to entrepreneurship are negative relative to more traditional employment. In other words, entrepreneurs would do better to take a job than to create one. At the same time, research also finds that people don’t necessarily enter entrepreneurship for the money: concerns such as autonomy and bringing ideas to life tend to top the list. But while being your own boss certainly sounds nice, entrepreneurship also brings a tremendous amount of stress. A common mantra among entrepreneurs is that “there are no weekends”, and a coworker once joked to me that “the best way to ruin a marriage is to start a company.”

So what’s the net impact on entrepreneurs? A recent study by Michael Dahl and colleagues at Denmark’s Aalborg University tried one novel way to find out. They linked Danish Labor Market data with the comprehensive Danish Prescription database to find out what impact starting companies had on the health of entrepreneurs and their spouses. In particular, they tracked (prescription) psychotropic drug use among 6,221 first time entrepreneurs and their 2,381 spouses from 2001-2004. The result? Entrepreneurs were significantly more likely to fill prescriptions for sedatives and hypnotics than non-entrepreneurs, presumably because the high stress associated with running their ventures caused anxiety and sleeplessness. At the same time, entrepreneurs were substantially less likely to fill prescriptions for antidepressants than their wage-earning counterparts. In other words, entrepreneurs may be more stressed, but they’re also (probably) happier.

This fits with an emerging body of research (and good ole common sense) that links autonomy, respect, and self-improvement to workplace happiness. Being your own boss may be stressful, but it certainly doesn’t rank low on autonomy and potential for growth. Some interesting results in this regard come from a project called Delivering Happiness at Work (DH@W), cofounded by Zappos CEO Tong Hseih. Part of DH@W is a ten-minute survey which has been taken by 11,000 workers in over 90 countries, and suggests that people are more likely to be happy if they:

  1. Work for a company with fewer than 100 people: you’re 25% more likeley to be happy at work in a small company than one with more than 1,000 people.
  2. Supervise others: managers and supervisors are 27% more likely to be happier at work than the managed.
  3. Work at a job that involves care-giving: caregivers are 75% more likely to be happy than those working in sales.
  4. Work in a skilled trade: skilled workers are 50% more likely to be happy than unskilled workers.
  5. Are not in their 40s: Older people are significantly happier at work, with the least happy being those in their 40s.

Delivering Happiness at Work takes its name from Hseih’s 2010 bestseller “Delivering Happiness“, which asserts that workplace happiness doesn’t have to come at the expense of profits or productivity: happiness, whether in a job or as an entrepreneur, comes from being engaged, respected, and successful. What a novel idea!

More on the DH@W survey at the Wall Street Journal, or take it online for free at Delivering Happiness.

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