In the latest issue of Talent Quarterly Magazine, I reviewed some of the research around the concept of happiness at work, and why many programs designed to boost employee happiness miss the mark. Here is an extended version of those ideas, with a few more details for good measure.
Whether its employee survey data, the vast numbers of people who have signed up to online sites as “passive job seekers” (LinkedIn suggest 70% of its members are open to new opportunities) or the record levels of people seeking self-employment (think entrepreneurship and the gig economy) – the popular message is that employees are really not having a great time at work. All of the numbers seem to be pointing to the need for the workplace equivalent of an antidepressant. Are we living through a workplace misery epidemic?
Over recent years we have seen the emergence of an entire industry to help us keep employees happy in their jobs – a host of programs directed at improving the overall positive affect (happy feelings) of the workforce. If you take a quick review of programs related to improving the “employee experience”, much of it sounds like the sort of advice you can read in a self-help book but at an organizational scale. Under this banner comes a huge number of initiatives, including strengths based management (people are happier and feel more confident when you focus on their strengths – go figure), the emerging focus on ensuring a great “employee experience”, programs to help people have “fun” in the work place, and many new approaches to leadership development that emphasize keeping people happy at work as a route to improved organization performance. Backing these approaches is work from researchers in the positive psychology movement who have found that being happy leads to improved well-being, productivity and relationships.
So, perhaps you can stop reading now? What’s not to like? Well, as it turns out, there might be quite a lot. It’s always valuable to be appropriately suspicious when something seems to have no downside. To understand what’s fundamentally wrong with using “happy employees” as an approach to organizational success, we need to challenge a few of the core assumptions. There are three important ones to address:
- The workforce is actually unhappy: The idea that we have a problem with workforce affect and attitude that needs to be addressed
- The interventions work: The idea that employee happiness interventions actually help to do something useful – great “experiences” will help people do better at work.
- The interventions have no negative consequences: The idea that workplace happiness has no downsides.
All of these assumptions are attractive given then popular position that happiness is something that we desperately want and need to resolve organizational problems. However, I would like to take the position that focusing on employee happiness is the answer to very few of the real problems we have in organizations today. I would also like to suggest that we would be much better served by focusing our time and effort elsewhere – on helping people to actually get their work done as part of a well led team, and as a result feel more fulfilled and committed. I’m going to base my view on data on scientific research but also from survey responses from the 5 million people that Mercer|Sirota has surveyed over the last 5 years. Last, I’m going to add a healthy dose of realism about why employee happiness programs are hurting your credibility as an HR practitioner, rather than helping it.
Let me be clear – the science shows that there are many benefits to being a positive, upbeat person; but research also shows us there is also upsides to thinking negatively sometimes. So, unless we critically evaluate the risk associated with investing in workplace happiness and employee experience projects then we will fail to manage them effectively.
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