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THE PROBLEMS WITH PURSUING HAPPINESS AT WORK

Posted by Tina Catling 25 January 2017 Innovation Consultancy

Are you happy at work? This simple question can put the fear of God into many an employee and employer alike. To be happy in your day to day work is often held up as the ultimate aspiration, and is often linked to employee engagement levels, capacity to be productive and ultimately contribution to an organisation. And this trend shows no sign of slowing – recent research by Viacom (and reported on by Forbes) has shown that almost half of millennials value having ‘a job they enjoy’ over ‘being rich’.

But what if too much happiness at work could actually be counterproductive? What if forcing happiness could have the opposite effect on team members?

FORCED HAPPINESS IS A POOR SUBSTITUTE

With so much riding on the need to be happy at work, many organisations have turned to enforcing happiness in the workplace.

In a recent article for British newspaper The Guardian entitled ‘The cult of compulsory happiness is ruining our workplaces’, Cass Business School professor André Spicer highlights that ‘in their quest to make employees happier, companies around the world have been busy installing play equipment in the workplace.’ From pirate ships to Ninja-dress-up days, Vodka shots to Formula One simulators, there is no end to the lengths companies will go to build this veneer of happiness at work. And yet, as Spicer points out somewhat bluntly - ‘despite all this effort, work still sucks.’

Spicer argues that by creating a space where happiness reigns, and therefore implicitly installing a ban on negative emotions towards work, the atmosphere ‘can be emotionally stunting for employees,’ and telling people they must be happy in their role often only makes the genuine emotion more elusive.

HAPPINESS IS BECOMING A CAREER IN ITSELF

With so much hype surrounding being happy at work, a whole new industry of ‘happiness makers’ has sprung up to supply the ever growing demand for quick fixes and top new tricks.

This was argued recently in The Economist, where it was suggested that ‘a weird assortment of gurus and consultancies is pushing the cult of happiness.’ From Google’s “Jolly Good Fellow”, whose primary job role was to promote mindfulness and personal emotional growth, to US shoe company Zappos’ 2010 book Delivering Happiness, happiness itself has become a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder.

While the principal behind helping employees to be happier at work is not a negative one, the argument that the energy which companies expend to ‘buy in’ happiness could in fact be better spent is convincing. Rather than pursuing happiness as an end in itself, focusing time and money on improving prospects for personal development, providing reliable and accessible channels for employees to contribute to change in the workplace, and creating positions with access to responsibility and decision making, can in fact prove more conducive to both the organisation and the individual. With so many consultancy opportunities available to help organisations do just that, that happiness has become a career in itself risks losing sight of the end goal. 

SEARCH FOR MEANING, RATHER THAN HAPPINESS

At an individual rather than an organisational level, constantly asking yourself ‘am I happy at work?’ can in fact lead you to overlook other important questions you should be asking about your career development and your reasons for staying in, or leaving, a role.

For Forbes contributor Kathy Caprino, many employees fall prey to ‘the same recurring patterns of self-sabotage and self-defeat – thoughts, mind-sets and behaviours that keep people stuck in the same cycle of disappointment and dissatisfaction year after year.’

She argues that asking questions such as ‘do I stay because I don’t know what else to do?’ and ‘what are the 20 “facts" of you and what you've achieved and contributed?’ can in fact be more valuable to increasing your self-perception and understanding of where you are in your working life, rather than simply asking whether you are happy. New York Magazine sums this up as a search for meaning, rather than happiness, which allows room for stress, effort, and struggle in daily discourse and yet delivers more satisfaction as an end result.

While the struggle for happiness should not be cast aside, taking a moment to consider what impact this has on daily working life, for employees and organisations alike, is an important step to take to ensure that the current fascination with imposing and commodifying happiness does not overshadow the desire of many to find purpose and meaning in their career.

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