We all know them. The team leader who arrives to work on Monday morning just a little bit too cheerful. The fellow employee who always looks as if they’ve just won the lottery — especially when the boss does her rounds.
Indeed, one of the reasons we find the fly-on-the-wall BBC documentary, The Call Centre, so fascinating, is because the overly positive CEO Nev is also deeply irritating. There is something unreal about him.
And this is the dilemma for those who seek to transform the workplace into a jovial and joyous setting — what does it mean without coming across as a cheap parody that just annoys everyone?
No doubt, the recent concern with happiness among management consultants and employers coincides with the financial crisis. While our jobs have become one of the most central parts of our lives – we are working more now than ever — it is also the biggest cause of anxiety for many of us. If things are not going well at the office or we see headlines about unemployment rates, we get stressed and worried. Not the best mental outlook for creative fulfilling work.
Moreover, today’s workforce are now demanding much more from their jobs, especially when they give up so much of their lives for it. Educated and critical Generation Y individuals are not so willing to be stuck in an office with a discourteous boss or grin and bear it when they fail to get the pay rise they deserve. They want much more from their work than their parents did.
Once again, we arrive at the central problem. How do you transform a depressed and monotonous office environment into an upbeat one?
One of the biggest problems with the ‘workplace happiness’ concept is that it misinterprets the drivers of happiness. It tends to think of it as something inherent in our personality or individual outlook. If you can just hire happy people, then everything will turn out well.
But the research tells us that happiness largely depends on your social environment, the cues you receive from it, and the feeling of security that derives from it. We should instead talk about ‘unhappy workplaces’ rather than ‘unhappy workers’ — because if your supervisor is bullying you, the turnover rate is out of control and pay/conditions lower than industry standards — being unhappy is just a rational response to our surroundings.
Indeed, one may venture to imagine that even the epitome of individual contentment would feel forlorn in such settings. In other words, it would be highly irrational to be happy in some workplace situations that have turned bad.
In order to make the workplace a happier place to be, the environment is the first thing to treat rather than trying to make individuals laugh by dressing up as a chicken. An environment conducive to happier employees might be pay/conditions related, but also support, security and most importantly, a friendly social climate.
All of the research concurs, one of the most damaging mistakes a company can make is hire the wrong person in the role of line-manager or supervisor. If they turn out to be nasty micro-managers to those in their charge — yes, we have all met them, those than control for the sake of it — the effect can be irreparable. These people keep you up at night.
I have even observed situations where such firms then launch a ‘wellbeing at work’ programme, led by the very supervisor who has caused all the damage! For anyone who has been on the receiving end of the ‘happiness command’, the outcome can be soul-destroying.
The other relevant issue here relates to the false dichotomy that many business commentators posit when thinking about a happy employee. Just because we are not feeling happy does not mean we are unhappy. Its not an either or situation, but a continuum.
We may be concentrating or reflecting on a problem.
Moreover, some jobs we do just don’t work if we are overly happy and joyous. If we saw a police officer restraining a rowdy member of the public with a big laughing smile, appearing to feel great joy in their job, we would think something was amiss. Not all types of occupations require over-the-top displays of optimism.
In sum, happiness at work is very important. But it’s more related to the social environment rather than individual personality. We mirror our surroundings.
Moreover, artificial attempts to create a happy environment — with balloons and ribbons — often have the opposite effect.
— The writer is a professor of business and society at Cass Business School, part of City University London.