I generally enjoy my work, and have always strived to make my working environment enjoyable for others as well. Of recent times a movement has grown that takes this to a whole new level. Work place happiness is a new phenomenon that introduces things like gym memberships for employees, free nutritional advice, “sleep pods” and much more. In fact, you may even be one of those employers that offer such things and are lauded for your employee wellbeing programs. Good for you.
Until recently I too applauded such efforts by employers, but reading an interview with William Davis, author of The Happiness Industry , has made me reconsider this. (Read the full Science of Us interview here). Essentially Davis asks the question we have seemed to let slip past – why? Why do companies like Google implement such programs? Is it because they really do care about their employees? Or is there something else behind it? This is a challenging question, and I doubt all of you will agree with where this is going, but it is like choosing the red pill in the movie The Matrix and “…seeing the truth of reality”! (For non-Matrix lovers click here for an explanation).
Davis posits that the real reason behind such programs is economic, that companies believe happy workers are more productive. Workers who are happy will feel better about working longer hours, and staying engaged with their work longer. The lines between work and non-work time are deliberately blurred so that employees will put their entire selves into their work (because work is now where their identity and happiness come from) and so the company nurtures the entire person to perpetuate this continual work engagement. Basically, for every employee wellness program there is a business case that identifies the economic benefits outweigh the costs of providing the program.
Most interestingly, Davis points out that these programs teach people to be happy at work, but do nothing to reform dysfunctional workplace habits (like continual workplace engagement and unhealthy work/life balance). The interviewer, David Marchese, describes it using the following metaphor:
“It’s like if someone was punching you in the face and their idea for how you might feel better about that situation is for you to learn to take a punch better, rather than they stop punching you in the face.”
That is, very few employers are introducing reforms to stop employees being plugged into work all the time.
However, as Davis notes, it is not that easy to develop a quantifiable ‘Happiness Index’ or similar. Happiness is intangible and individual. To reduce happiness to a set of external measurable indicators is to rob us of our own individual stories that describe why we are happy – as unique as we are, and unquantifiable.
Am I now against employee wellness programs? Not entirely, but I am a lot more cynical of them. I would rather see companies addressing the bigger picture of healthy work habits and allowing people their right to develop a life and identity distinct and separate from their place of work. I am not my work or my employer. I am much more than that.
The Avondale Business School can advise your organisation on being effective in these areas – find out how by contacting Warrick Long at the Avondale Business School.
P: 02 4980 2168