Are Companies Missing the Mark on Fostering Happier Employees?

Picture of Rick DelgadoRick Delgado feels blessed to have had a successful career in the tech industry and has recently taken a step back to pursue his passion of writing. He's started doing freelance writing where he occasionally works with tech companies like Dell Computers. He enjoys writing about new technologies and how it can help us and our planet.

For years, the conventional wisdom has been that the happier an employee is, the more productive he or she will be.This isn’t some recent phenomenon either. Researchers have traced the “happiness at work” trend back to the 1920s, where the idea was to create a content workforce, which would in turn boost productivity levels. The same thinking holds true today. If anything, it has achieved new levels of acceptance among even the biggest corporations. But what if the thinking behind being happy at work is off? Could it be that the conventional wisdom of fostering happy workers has missed the mark? Professors at the Cass Business School in London and Stockholm University have released some intriguing insights into the traditional concept of promoting happiness at work, and the results show it might not increase productivity after all.

The conclusions reached by these researchers have of course been met with a degree of scepticism. The conventional wisdom seems to make sense: why wouldn’t a happier worker be more productive? It’s important to note, though, that the main issue studied by researchers wasn’t whether happier workers get more done, it was whether the act of companies encouraging workers to be happy leads to more productivity. In this sense, the professors involved in the study say most businesses may be doing more harm than good. One of the reasons they cite from their research is that the act of pursuing happiness can be an exhausting one. Many workers may see it as their duty to be happy at work, turning the very act into a drudgery. It becomes particularly complicated when employees have certain levels of expectation for the happiness they want from their job, and employers fail to help them achieve that.

When expectations aren’t met in this regard, employees may even feel neglected. To some workers, managers and bosses may be viewed as surrogate spouses or parents when that’s really not their role at all. Managers look for results and getting the most out of their employees work. For many, the emotions of their workers don’t really factor into the equation. When those emotional needs aren’t met, however, employees can become frustrated. Of course, many businesses have sought to meet those emotional needs through special perks at the office and policies designed to promote happiness, but many of those perks (from extended breaks to BYOD policies) don’t always translate directly into productivity. That ball pit or slide that was recently installed in the office may provide for a bit of fun, but temporary happiness doesn’t always lead to getting more work done.

Critics of this research are quick to point to other studies showing different conclusions. One of the most cited is a study from 2010 that actually showed happier people were able to produce more work. The experiment had subjects answer a series of math questions. Half of the subjects saw a film on comedy routines before answering the questions, and as a result, they were 12 percent more productive. But even this study can be counteracted by other research that has been conducted, particularly the study that found that the more miserable British supermarket employees were, the higher the company profited. With differing opinions on the matter, it’s clear that the debate will continue, but that doesn’t produce a clear cut answer for businesses to use for planning out their own strategies.

To be clear, there’s nothing bad about having happy employees at work. If anything it simply makes for a more pleasant work environment where people are in good moods. The problems seem to arise when companies try to get involved in this endeavour, specifically trying to encourage happiness without actually addressing any underlying problems. Even in the realm of Chief Happiness Officers there are concerns over how closely they should work with employees and whether it constitutes a violation of privacy. Enduring happiness can certainly make an employee productive, but that happiness is difficult if not impossible to construct through business policy. Too many factors play a role in an employee’s emotional state, and businesses that believe they can manipulate them in a positive way may be doing a disservice. A proper focus on policies and factors that do affect productivity will go a much longer way toward getting the results companies want.


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