After our needs for food, shelter and water, the pursuit of happiness is our greatest driving force – and mankind is entrenched in a seemingly endless debate over whether the pursuit or the happiness is the actual point. We’re so obsessed with this quest that we’ve even created an International Day of Happiness – which falls today! – enabling us to mull our motivations, check our satisfaction levels or, for those most fortunate souls, celebrate the fact that we have this happiness thing firmly sewn up.

But as managers and leaders, we must also scrutinise how happiness is operating – or failing to operate – in the workplace. And it looks as though it is not firing on nearly enough cylinders. Research published today by business consultancy Lee Hecht Harrison Penna says that one third of employees are unhappy at work, with one in 10 describing their jobs as “horrible”. Meanwhile, a fifth of UK workers are troubled by stress and anxiety (this rises to a quarter among women).

Clearly, something is going wrong somewhere. But to what extent should managers and leaders go out to bat for their employees’ positivity by introducing formal happiness policies? Here are a few thoughts on that question from a leading management and leadership thinker. His cautious take may surprise you…

Thibaut Bardon – associate professor, managerial innovations guru and head of management research at Audencia Business School – says:

For several years, happiness at work has become the new mantra for companies that wish to present themselves as being at the forefront of managerial innovation.

From freeing up organisational structures to hiring ‘Chief Happiness Officers’, or creating specially designed, playful workspaces, companies that implement this type of programme maintain that this management approach not only promotes good feelings for their own sake – but is also more effective than traditional managerial methods.

In other words the happier you make your employees, the more productive they are.

These initiatives, which aim to combine economic and social performances, are often unanimously praised. However, there is some evidence that they can also create problems, by creating not just economic challenges, but ethical and social ones, too.

The disputed link between happiness and economic performance

First of all, from a purely economic point of view, there are questions about the rationality of these initiatives.

While they can mobilise significant financial, human and even technical resources, there is no consensus that they improve the economic performance of companies.

Furthermore, all the research in the field differs quite widely as to whether or not happy employees do in fact perform better than others.

Therefore, such moves to promote ‘happiness’ in the workplace, cannot be said to be necessarily beneficial to the financial health of a company. Indeed, it can prove to be costly for companies that invest heavily in these ideas.

Happiness lies at work... but not only there!

Next, these initiatives may be questionable as they necessarily assume that we each define or measure happiness in the same way.

And in any case, can it really be ethical to suggest that happiness must necessarily arise from work and the work environment? That it can only be achieved by bringing a particularly intense professional commitment?

We may reasonably ask ourselves: what are the real motivations that bring leaders to implement these type of initiatives, when their definition of ‘happiness’ seems to align rather conveniently with the company’s objectives. How might this impact upon an employee’s life outside the workplace, and does it not run the risk of raising workplace happiness at the expense of fulfilment outside of work? 

A happiness imperative can lead to exclusion and burnout

Socially, initiatives aimed at improving employees’ happiness at work have been seen to have negative effects on their overall wellbeing. They risk stigmatising employees who do not believe that their personal fulfilment necessarily involves a greater commitment to their company.

These employees may then be considered unambitious, lazy or uncooperative both by the company and other employees.

Their mistake is not so much that they do not do their job – which they actually do very well – but that they don’t want to take part in this higher search for happiness through work. These employees are considered morally guilty by other colleagues because they question the universality of the company’s subscribed concept of happiness.

At the same time, these initiatives can have very negative consequences for those employees who wholeheartedly subscribe to this concept of needing always to be happy, both by and through their work.  Cases of physical and psychological exhaustion become all the more likely when work is felt to be the only valid form of personal fulfilment, and this is a risky scenario for individuals. 

In conclusion…

Great care and thought must be taken before implementing initiatives that seek to boost employees’ happiness.

Encouraging employees’ fulfilment is of course a very laudable goal in itself. But when doing this, all members of the company must work in consensus, and realise that happiness is not just a collective goal, but a personal one too.

As such, it is vital to encourage employees to find happiness not just at work, but crucially, outside of working hours.

What do YOU think?

Let us know how you feel about Professor Bardon’s views in the comments below.

Happiness and the Institute

Last year, The Institute of Leadership & Management joined forces with community interest company Maudsley Learning to ensure that managers are equipped with tools that will help them safeguard wellbeing at work – both for themselves and their employees.

At the time, the Institute’s head of research Kate Cooper said: “Despite increased awareness, many organisations are not equipping their people with the skills to manage individuals with mental health issues and to ensure general wellbeing across the business. The proportion of sickness absence due to mental health is 38% in the UK, which means there is a fundamental need for managers to develop the skills to address this issue.”

Following that successful partnership, the Institute has been supporting Business in the Community (BITC) in its efforts to boost mental health in the workplace. Watch this space for future blogs about the Institute’s work with BITC…

For further thoughts on the pursuit of happiness, check out this research from the Institute