Creating a Culture of Happiness

colored powder exploding

Insights from a clinic leader on building a happy workplace from the ground up

By Alicia Backer, PTA

Achieving a culture of happiness in your clinic is undeniably one of the most sought-after elements as a business owner.

“Culture of happiness” refers not only to what your audience (i.e., patients, community members, etc.) perceives, but also, and more importantly, how your staff feels. When your staff feels happiness, they will exuberate happiness. This is when your staff will thrive, and so will your business.

Happiness is not the goal, it is the product. Most of us do not need a formal definition of happiness, we know when we feel it, but how exactly do we know when our team feels it and how can we foster an environment that revels happiness? During my time as a clinic leader I have learned that one cannot “make their staff happy,” but through experience and exploration I am certain in knowing that the following elements will foster a culture that supports happiness.


Hiring the best person for the position does not necessarily mean this is the best person for your clinic. Finding someone who can complement your culture is more important than just looking for an impressive resume. One organization’s description of “their kind of person” may be completely different than yours. No matter the type of position or brand of company, there are like-qualities that are desired when looking to hire. Rushing to hire is a terrible idea and can result in some serious damage to your existing culture. Take time to find the right fit. You want to surround yourself with people who believe what you believe.

A happy culture needs happy people. We all want that, right? Finding the right person during a 30-minute interview is not an easy task, but it is possible. Being able to detect happiness is more than just a feeling, it is an amalgamation of nonverbal cues and information gathered during the interview. Consider it an appraisal of their happiness. Ask the right questions, listen carefully, and pay close attention to body language. Their smile is a good first sign of happiness.

When I meet a candidate for the first time, I find myself paying extremely close attention to their smile, their body language, and how they react to questions in a nonverbal way. If they are not smiling, then it’s game over. Happy people smile—it’s that simple. Ask them how others can see their happiness. Use words like “how would you feel” rather than “what would you feel” when asking questions. The conclusion gathered should give you a good idea of how genuine their happiness is.

Of course, there will be other characteristics that you are looking for during the interview. Adding someone to your team who exhibits positivity, yearns for high-level engagement, desires inclusion, is hungry to learn, and any other quality that will contribute to your team success will nurture a happy environment. Finding your kind of people is an essential ingredient, maybe even the most important ingredient, in your recipe for a happy culture.


Kevin Kruse, author of Employee Engagement 2.0, says the definition of employee engagement is the emotional commitment the employee has to the organization and its goals.1 Demonstrating and expecting a high level of engagement as part of your culture will facilitate inclusion and help employees feel that their efforts are making a difference. A highly engaged employee cares about their work, will make decisions with the team’s best interests in mind, and will go above and beyond without hesitation to facilitate the team’s success. Having a high-purpose environment filled with small, vivid signals will create a link between present and future ideals.2 Successful teams are told explicitly by leaders why their skills (individual and collective) are important for the team’s success.2 They will feel safety within the practice and gain confidence in themselves. Encourage your team to share their ideas and use them. Learn the ambitions of each team member to maximize the strength of your clinic’s culture. Include all staff on developing community alliances and participating in marketing opportunities. Focusing on these things will allow your clinic to achieve a highly engaged culture and will result in happy staff and a prosperous clinic.


Brené Brown’s Ted Talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” is a must see. She hits the nail on the head when she describes vulnerability as absolutely essential.3 Brené shares her research on connection and vulnerability. Connection is why we are here. It is what we live for. Human connection is our ability to empathize, belong, and love.3 For connection to happen we must first allow ourselves to truly be seen. We must be authentic, and we must be vulnerable. To be authentic one must embrace who they are and be aware of their vulnerability. This will allow others to see you for who you are and will assemble a strong sense of trust, love and belonging amongst your staff, your patients, and your community. Spotlight your fallibility early on; admit fear and stay accountable for your mistakes.2 Modeling this behavior will show your team that this environment is safe. When your staff feels loved and accepted, they will be intentional in their work and go above and beyond expectations. Being vulnerable is contagious but it is hard and can be extremely terrifying.

Have you shown sincere vulnerability to your team? Have you let them see raw emotion? I have; I cried during a leadership meeting once. I broke down into a teary-eyed mess while sharing my gratefulness for our team and their continual willingness to lead and work in a way that strengthens the entire group and the culture. The feeling in the room was powerful. I felt like a fool in the moment but later understood the importance of sharing those real emotions. Love hard even when there is no guarantee. I can promise the return on investment of that moment will be worth it.


You will have a happy workplace if you take the time to make it a happy workplace. Be intentional about spending time with your employees. Consciously choose to create the culture you desire. Get to know your people and invest in their personal and professional development. The primary benefit may not be immediate but long-term product value will be significant. For example, it is like going to the gym. No matter how many squats you do today, you’re not going to be stronger immediately. But if you continue to go to the gym, you will become stronger over the long term. Be purposeful to make quality time a priority. Organizing activities both inside and outside the clinic are important. Schedule individual wellness checks with your staff. Sit down face-to-face and talk about their personal and professional health and their goals. Provide insight and create moments for self-discovery. Set timelines for the goals and help them develop a pathway for achieving them. Plan team building activities and take them out for a nice dinner on occasion. Showing that time with them is important to you will provide security and further strengthen the culture.


Maintaining a highly successful and happy culture requires consistency. Without consistency, the first four factors of fostering a happy culture will not be maximized. Stay focused on your purpose and provide safety. Safety is the foundation of a strong culture and belonging cues foster a sense of safety. The amount and consistency of these cues is critical. When your team feels safe, they will perform highly. Perseverance through the highs and lows will encourage the entire team to trust your leadership and value your unwavering commitment to be consistent in keeping the culture strong. Tony Hsieh, CEO, and visionary leader of Zappos was known for his greatest ability as a leader, giving energy to others. Your team needs this right now. This year has been traumatic in some way for everyone and is a time when even the most successful and happy cultures are tested. Make time for your team. Thank them. Remind them of how their work is impacting the bigger picture. Be genuine, be present and the rest will take care of itself.

I do not label myself as an expert in building happy cultures, but I do know what has been shared in this article works. I am a listener, an observer, and I love hard. The factors described in this article are not rocket science, but they do take time, humbleness, and love. Creating a team that includes “your kind of people” who fit into the culture that you are striving to achieve sets a great foundation. Having a team who share the same purpose, are highly energized and engaged, and feel safe will generate happiness and bring great success to your practice.

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1Kruse K. Employee Engagement 2.0. Scotts Valley, California: CreateSpace; 2012.

2Coyle D. Culture Code. New York: Random House Business; 2019.

3Brown B. The Power of Vulnerability. Accessed December 6, 2020.

Alicia Backer, PTA

Alicia Backer, PTA is a physical therapist assistant and clinic administrator at RehabAuthority in Thief River Falls, MN. She can be reached at and on Twitter @AliciaBacker.

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