Happiness at work

Out running on Sunday morning I saw two magpies. Remember 'one for sorrow, two for joy …' the magpie rhyme? It came to mind then and also reminded me of the point that someone made at the Culturevist meeting earlier in the week. She'd said 'We don't talk much about happiness at work'. (The meeting was on Redesigning Performance Management – in most current designs a source of much unhappiness).

I think she's right. We don't talk much about happiness at work. We seem to act on the assumption that it's a good thing. So instead of trying to talk about what it is and consider whether it is a helpful workplace construct, we try and 'do' happiness, and bunches of consultants are ready to leap in and help us with just that.

One, for example 'believes that happiness is a serious business. Research shows that happiness and wellbeing at work is the foundation of a productive and optimised organization and makes a real difference to a company's bottom line'. I wonder where the research comes from? Could it be the 2014 research report from Warwick University which suggests that fostering happiness at work is a 'must do' because 'In the laboratory, they found happiness made people around 12% more productive'.

What's wrong with that? Well, maybe not a lot but it does bear some reflective thought. I looked at the research and found that: 'All the laboratory subjects are young men and women who attend an elite English university with required entry grades amongst the highest in the country.' That's not an exactly representative example of the UK workforce in my view. Also I'm not sure that a 'laboratory' is remotely like a call centre, supermarket, hospital ward, etc. where workers are engaged in work and not in carefully designed tests. So question one – how reliable is the happiness 'research' when it starts to be applied to workplaces?

Second, there's a lack of distinction between 'happiness' and 'well-being'. In a Futurelearn course that I'm doing – Strategies for Successful Aging – two questions were posed to participants in an article 'Introducing happiness and wellbeing'. These were: What do you think are the differences between happiness and wellbeing? Are there areas which overlap between both? This resulted in 1502 comments with people generally saying that 'well-being' is about physical and mental health, and 'happiness' is a much more subjective and intermittently experienced emotion. The tutor noted that wellbeing and happiness are not necessarily correlated i.e. happiness is experienced by people in poor physical and/or emotional health. And people who describe themselves in a state of well-being do not always think themselves 'happy'.

Third, the whole issue of 'happiness' gets tied up not just with well-being but also with 'engagement' which is more about people being emotionally committed to their company and their work goals. People who are engaged care about their work and often give discretionary effort. Again engaged employees may or may not also be happy employees – there isn't necessarily a correlation. A similar distinction could be made for employee 'satisfaction' which is not the same as either happiness or well-being, or engagement.

Thus, there's a patchwork of related and interrelated concepts which could all fall under the umbrella of 'positive psychology' which when they are approached separately seem to fragment the notion that organisations should be aiming to be overall good places to work. Happy employees may or may not be the outcome of being a good place to work but they are more likely to be. (If you like models the EFQM is helpful on a holistic framework for creating a good place to work).

So is it better to concentrate on becoming overall a good place to work rather than focusing effort on employing happiness consultants, trying to up engagement scores or engaging a Chief Happiness Officer?

Let me know.