Monday blues: Why you might be better off if you are not happy at work
The sad truth is that being constantly on the lookout for happiness may actually mean happiness eludes us
Happiness at work may be good for some jobs – such as customer-facing work where you need to make members of the public feel upbeat too – but there is evidence to suggest happiness could be a liability in other roles.
In their quest to make employees happier, companies around the world have been busy installing play equipment in the workplace. Google has set up slides in its Zurich office so engineers can whizz between floors. The online shoe retailer Zappos encourages employees to dress as their favourite animal on certain days. There are US companies that give staff an opportunity to be ninjas for the day. Fussball tables, computer games, action figures and scooters have become fixtures in some workplaces. And if you walked into the offices of Inventionland, you could be mistaken for assuming you were in a children’s playground: workspaces there include a fake pirate ship, a tree house, and a giant shoe.
The lengths companies go to in order to make employees happy to spend increasingly long hours at work do not stop there: Tony Hsieh, chief executive of Zappos, has been known to down vodka shots with employees in interviews. And Expedia, ranked this year as the happiest workplace in the UK, has modelled its London office on a night club with free bars, chill-out zones and Formula One simulators.
In The Wellness Syndrome, the book I wrote with Carl Cederström, we took a look at the increasing fascination with happiness at work. We found a growing industry of “funsultants” offering advice on how to make workforces more positive. Firms such as Zappos have started to employ chief happiness officers. There is also a booming field of management research on positivity at work.
But despite all this effort, work still sucks. According to a recent study by the London School of Economics, the place where we feel most miserable is work. There is only one place and circumstance that makes us feel worse – being sick in bed.
The clamour to make employees happy at work is driven by one of the oldest cliches in the human resource management playbook: that a happy worker is a good worker. As William Davies shows in his book The Happiness Industry, this idea has been part of management theory since at least the 1930s. The problem is that there have been decades of research on the link between employee satisfaction and productivity, and the results are pretty inconclusive.
There are studies that find if you show students a standup comedy routine and then get them to spot errors in a piece of writing, they will do better than students who have not seen the comedy routine. However, another study, of a major UK supermarket chain, found that the stores with the least satisfied employees were the most productive and profitable.
Happiness at work may be good for some jobs – such as customer-facing work where you need to make members of the public feel upbeat too – but there is evidence to suggest happiness could be a liability in other roles. One study, for instance, found that people who were angry tended to get better outcomes during a negotiation than a happy person would. People in a good mood were also worse at noticing an act of deception than people in a bad mood.
While happiness at work is not always good for productivity, surely it must be good for individual employees? This is not always true either. To proceed with an unerring emphasis on being happy can crowd out other emotions; anger, sadness, anxiety and uncertainty – all staples of the contemporary workplace – become a no-no. This implicit ban on negative emotions can therefore be emotionally stunting for employees. A number of recent studies show that being able to express a range of positive and negative emotions is important, particularly when people are dealing with difficult experiences.
But giving space for a range of emotions at work can also be important for the health of the entire organisation. This is wonderfully illustrated by a recent study considering why the mobile phone maker Nokia failed. In 2007, the year the iPhone launched, Nokia was the world’s leading mobile-phone maker. It had ample information about Apple’s venture, so should have been able to successfully challenge it.
However, the Finnish company had invested heavily in a smartphone operating system called Symbian, which wasn’t working well. Middle managers in the company knew it, but they feared communicating the bad news up the hierarchy because they didn’t want to appear to be negative. They had got the message: if you wanted to keep your division open, it was imperative to be only upbeat and pass on positive news. Because senior managers only got positive news, it took them too long to ditch Symbian, switch operating systems and launch a decent smartphone. By that point, Apple and Samsung had overtaken Nokia. Now Nokia no longer makes mobile phones.
The sad truth is that being constantly on the lookout for happiness may actually mean happiness eludes us. This point was illustrated by a study in which psychologists got two groups of people to do something that usually makes people happy – watching a film of someone winning an ice-skating competition. They then tested how happy the experience made them. Before watching the video, one group read out a statement about how important it was to be happy and have an upbeat attitude; the other group did not.
The psychologists found that the group that didn’t read out the statement actually tended to be more happy after watching the video. This suggests that when we talk about how important happiness is, we become less likely to find it, even when we have experiences that usually make us happy.
Wanting to be happy at work is fair enough. But being forced to be happy at work can be troubling. If organisations were genuinely interested in making their employees happy at work, then they would probably give up on the corporate clowning and look at some much more downbeat interventions. A simple step would be allowing employees to work from home at least some of the time. One experimental study found employee satisfaction and productivity shot up when people were allowed to work from home.
A second simple step would be to stop interrupting workers with all sorts of pointless demands such as long emails, bureaucratic forms and compulsory happiness initiatives. A study by researchers at Harvard Business School found workers felt most satisfied on days at work when they were just able to consistently focus on an important piece of work and make some meaningful progress on it.
Finally, removing some of the endemic uncertainty that is built into many workplaces would be an excellent step towards making employees more happy at work. In my own work with Mats Alvesson we found that many organisational restructuring and change initiatives achieve very little apart from making employees miserable, building the reputations of a few managers, and fattening the coffers of consultants.
One way organisations really could make their employees happier, aside from slides and vodka shots? Think long and hard before pointless restructuring.
André Spicer is professor of organisational behaviour at the Cass Business School at City University London. He is author of The Stupidity Paradox.