Let’s not pursue happiness at work as the end goal

An article in the Guardian today questions the often monumental efforts modern day businesses put into making their employees happy and that despite this effort work is still the place where we feel most miserable. The only place we feel worse is being sick in bed – and after a weekend holed up on the sofa with a heavy cold, I sympathise with that.

All this effort is based on the premise that a happy worker is a good worker and yet the author challenges this assumption by quoting a number of inconclusive studies around this topic and a study which showed that for one UK retailer, the least satisfied employees were the most productive and profitable.  We begin to question whether such an investment into the pursuit of happiness at all costs is actually the best use of an organisation’s resource.

Another downside from a focus on happiness is that it may drive the wrong behaviours. Individuals may be reluctant to bring up concerns for fear of being perceived as too negative. Group think takes over, whistle blowing becomes a thing of the past and poor decisions go through unchallenged. Bad news is buried which is risky for any business.

Additionally, and here’s the biggie, a focus on happiness as an end goal seems to make it even more difficult to experience it.

Ironically by focusing on happiness, by wanting to do the right thing for our employees, we may be making happiness even more elusive.

So do organisations have a role to play in making their employees happy?

Some may say no, particularly when it includes taking on responsibility for their employee’s happiness. But we all want to work alongside others who are happy and fun to be around and there are significant downsides to being unhappy such as absenteeism, poor motivation and even poor health which costs business billions of pounds every year.

What may be better is for organisations to move away from happiness as an end goal (much like engagement) to a focus on facilitating actions, which enable individuals to find their own happiness, meaning, purpose or whatever. Instead of asking how can we make people happy, we should be asking what can we do to make people’s working lives that little bit better/easier/more interesting.

It means a focus away from happiness towards a focus on the operation side of the business and thankfully that is often what businesses are best at. As a minimum businesses should be attempting all of these:

  1. Making it easier for employees to get to and stay at work – flexible working, annualised hours, job share and permanent part time career roles. How refreshing would it be for an HR business partner to spend time researching local child care on behalf of a stressed out employee.
  2. Giving people an opportunity to experience interesting work by giving them chunky projects with a beginning, middle and end which delivers something to someone. Let them get on with it, without constant interruption and then recognise them for their efforts.
  3. Providing a decent salary to enable employees to live a life they choose.
  4. Reducing uncertainty by minimising organisation restructuring and sharing medium to long term organisational action plans rather than mere aspirations.