The Employee Happiness Fad … Doesn’t Make Me Happy

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Jan 18, 2016
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

Ever since the Declaration of Independence, “the pursuit of happiness” has been a national goal. However, only recently has a more narrow focus on employee happiness become a talked about item among business and HR leaders. Some call it a trend but I call it another distracting fad that will take the needed focus away from HR’s primary role of increasing employee productivity and innovation.

If you don’t believe that it is a popular trend/fad that seems to be primarily pushed by consultants and startup CEOs, you need only look at the increase in usage of the word in so many ways. For example there are now Chief Happiness Officers, a Happiness Institute, and numerous happiness magazines/blogs. There is even a popular book called “The Happiness Industry,” and a successful happiness song (i.e. the song “Happy” by Pharrell Williams was a No. 1 hit in 2014). In the corporate world, Google is an advocate of employee happiness and the CEO of Zappos is totally focused on “Delivering Happiness” to both employees and customers.

Now you might be wondering how anyone can argue against happiness as a goal. But there is no cause-and-effect evidence showing that happy workers produce more than the average worker. Now I’m not advocating deliberately making employees unhappy, but I am saying that the focus on employee productivity and having some things that can only be achieved by producing more output is a much more effective approach. So my suggestion is that rather than being caught up in this latest feel-good junk science fad, review the many reasons listed below covering why corporate efforts to increase happiness may not be just a waste of time, but they may actually be damaging to your organization.

What’s Wrong With the Employee Happiness Fad?

The top 12 reasons why you should be extremely cautious about any major focus on happiness are listed below. If you even mention these potential shortcomings to individuals who make a living in “the happiness industry,” expect to hear a hostile, and of course a highly emotional, response as opposed to data driven proof. The factors with the highest negative impact are listed first.

  1. Happy workers may be complacent — if happiness is an end goal, arriving at a happy state may give a worker nothing to strive for. You might find that your workers are the happiest when they are not required to do anything. For instance, I knew potheads in the 1960s who were quite happy but no one argued that they were productive or that they had initiative! The phrase “fat and happy” exists for a reason. Once you succeed at making your employees happy for a period of time, they may begin to view it as an entitlement. And during tough times, you may find that your employees will become extremely problematic after they experience a lower level of happiness and fewer happiness perks for even a short period of time.
  1. Happiness won’t increase productivity; instead, being productive and successful increases happiness — many in HR simply don’t know that their primary goal is to increase the productivity of the workforce (i.e. labor should produce more output at lower costs). Most HR leaders don’t know that there are 20+ factors that cause productivity, so it’s a mistake to focus on a single factor like happiness or engagement that can only have a negligible impact on productivity. You can, of course, assume that happiness causes productivity. But if you really need to know which comes first — productivity or happiness — you should conduct a split sample/control group study (rather than correlations that don’t show direction) to find out precisely what causes what. With a split-sample experiment, you will find that productivity and success in the workplace and the pride and satisfaction that comes with it are the actual drivers of long-term employee happiness. Put simply, happiness does not increase productivity or business results, but productive and successful workers become happy because of their rewards and their work successes. Incidentally, you should never compare the performance of happy workers to unhappy workers. Instead, prove that when the average worker increases their happiness level, their performance increases proportionally. And finally, because happiness efforts are expensive, that means that there will be less time and money to focus on the actual high-impact productivity factors like a great manager, more resources, clear goals, reducing politics, great recruiting/retention, and metrics and rewards tied to productivity. Instead shift your “happiness money” and spend it on actual high-impact people-management actions that have a direct and proven impact on productivity.
  2. Happiness isn’t defined — it’s almost impossible to find “happiness in the workplace” clearly defined. And the definitions that can be found are so vague that they provide little guidance to corporate HR leaders, (i.e. “Happiness is the joy one feels striving for one’s potential” (Shawn Achor)). Anything that can’t be accurately defined (happy with what?) can’t be accurately measured.
  3. Happiness can’t be accurately measured — happiness is a mental state, so within the corporate environment, identifying and measuring it may reach the same level of difficulty as catching a ghost. Employee surveys are the typical way of measuring happiness levels, but surveying employees simply won’t result in accurate data. The reasons include the fact that every employee has their own definition of happiness, and many of the factors that cause employee happiness occur outside of the workplace. Happiness surveys, like any other surveys, can be biased because they may be filled out to please their manager or to get even with them. A lack of employee interest may cause some employees to quickly “Christmas tree” their answers while others who don’t often think about happiness in the workplace simply won’t know how to respond. And finally, because almost all happiness surveys are anonymous (to improve honesty), that means that the results are not easily actionable. This is because anonymity provides no way to pinpoint your problem areas and to target your happiness improvement efforts primarily on high-performers, high-impact jobs, and weak managers.
  4. Can happiness even be changed?  happiness is a mental state, so we are not even sure that it can be changed with the limited actions available to corporate leaders. And because happiness advocates are frequently resistant to the use of metrics, no one in the corporate world has been able to publicly prove that an employee’s level of happiness can be successfully changed through positive corporate actions. And if workforce happiness can be improved, there is simply no evidence showing which of these common actions like flexible scheduling, open office spaces, yoga, foosball tables, free food, beanbag chairs, and other amenities have the greatest impact on increasing happiness and productivity. And because many of the happiness perks are applied at the headquarters office, they can’t have changed the happiness of field workers, at home workers and those who work in small regional offices. In fact, their limited availability may actually cause jealousy and an “us-versus-them” attitude.
  5. Should corporations even try to manage “a mental state”? — even if you can change employee happiness, when you try to increase happiness, you are dealing with emotions and cognitive factors. Happiness is a mental state and it may not even be ethical for a corporation to attempt to manage or change an employee’s mental state. Because we are typically not experts in psychology, we may inadvertently disrupt an employee’s way of thinking, their cognitive processes, other emotions, and their lives.
  6. The levers for increasing happiness are almost always limited to perks — corporate leaders seldom have data to show which tools or approaches actually cause employee happiness, so most organizations seem to automatically opt for some kind of perk as a way to increase it. Unfortunately, there is also no cause-and-effect relationship between more perks/benefits and increased performance. This over-emphasis on perks and fun items that many other firms have used often means that little research is put into identifying the people-management factors that have a much larger impact on increasing happiness, like better managers, more training, and more growth opportunities. In fact, some happiness solutions like flexible scheduling might make an individual employee very happy, but them not being at work during core hours might negatively affect teamwork and team performance. Some of the most popular perks like nap rooms and free massages may actually reduce the time spent working. Simply asking employees what they “like” or trial and error may cause you to provide happiness features that while fun, have no measurable impact on productivity or innovation.
  7. Causes and happiness solutions will vary significantly among employees – in a large diverse workforce, there may be hundreds of happiness causes. And because of that employee diversity, implementing any single happiness solution like in-house childcare that works for some, will have no impact on others (because they have no young children). These individual differences are problematic, because, in most cases, happiness solutions are applied across the board to all employees. So those broad efforts may have little or even a negative impact on some employees. In some government organizations, legal restrictions or public pressure would simply prohibit the implementation of some proven happiness factors like paid meals and free massages.
  8. Some jobs are inherently dull — rather than impacting all jobs the same, employee happiness may only have a high impact in certain creative and innovation jobs. And some jobs may be so inherently mundane that nothing can make the occupant in the job happy over the long term. That means that a company like Netflix may have a high level of happiness among the headquarters technology staff but an inherently lower level of happiness among the hourly warehouse staff.
  9. You can’t measure the ROI of most happiness solutions — because most happiness solutions are applied all at once and not individually, there is no before-and-after impact data for each solution. And when you only calculate costs, but not the dollar impact of each solution, you simply can’t measure the ROI.
  10. Happiness is incorrectly interchanged with other similar terms — almost without exception, when you read an article or listen to a proponent of happiness, they frequently shift seamlessly to other words and concepts like they were actually This seemingly endless list of interchangeable words can include engagement, gratefulness, satisfaction, morale, positive thinking, purposefulness, core values, social responsibility, focus on your strengths, work/life balance, culture, and even mindfulness. The only thing these concepts have in common unfortunately is that they are “soft indirect solutions,” that can’t be clearly defined and that usually use employee surveys, which require paid consultants.
  11. If you want a happy workforce, why not simply hire happy people? — A significant portion of your workforce at any one time may be fundamentally unhappy or even depressed. So making these employees happy may be expensive, time-consuming, and it will have a low success rate. If you want happy employees, a better solution might be to seek out and hire people who are already continually happy in their lives. Of course, if you do this you will eventually find that the happiest workers are not the most productive.

Some Positive Actions to Consider

  • Collaboration is a more impactful goal — some of the happiness actions that you take may inadvertently increase employee collaboration and “time for thinking.” No matter how they are created, these two outcomes will have a large and positive impact on innovation.
  • Personalization is important — because happiness is such an individual thing,  only a solution that is personalized to each individual employee may be effective.
  • Instead, hire self-motivated and impatient people — instead of hiring already happy people, a superior alternative would be to hire driven, inpatient people … ones who are self-motivated and who see the glass is half full. Because without any prodding or happiness perks, these individuals will be constantly looking for ways to increase efficiency, productivity, and innovation. Before hiring anyone, survey your top candidates and ask them what they expect in a great job. You’ll find, as I have, that top performers and innovators care about the work and the opportunity to make a difference. Happiness perks do not even appear on their short list of attraction factors.
  • You must proactively minimize unhappiness — happiness does not cause productivity, but an unhappy worker will certainly act in dysfunctional ways. They will typically be sick, late, and absent more frequently. And if they are truly frustrated, unhappy workers certainly won’t volunteer for extra work or overtime and will have a higher intention to quit. As a result, it makes sense to have a program that helps managers identify and minimize the unhappiness of individual employees.

Some Additional Negative Things to Consider About Happiness Efforts

If you’re still not convinced that you should be wary of the happiness fad, here are some additional negative factors to consider.

  • Managers must see value — if you expect individual managers to take employee happiness seriously, you must show them the value and the business impact of having happy employees. Then you must measure and reward managers for raising happiness within their team, or your corporate-wide happiness efforts will have little actual impact.
  • Surveys are expensive — most underestimate the costs of happiness surveys … especially the employee time required to fill out the surveys. In addition, the time spent analyzing, interpreting, presenting the results and finding solutions can be significant.
  • Happiness perks may hamper teamwork — some happiness perks like shared free meals have the added benefit of increasing teamwork. Others like isolation chambers, time off, nap rooms, and massages may actually reduce team cohesion.
  • Happiness solutions may inadvertently lead to frustration — in many cases, employees will be unhappy because of structural issues like pay, communications, or limited growth opportunities. In these cases, you may actually anger and frustrate them when you implement fun perks like exercise equipment and games. This is because taking the wrong actions may finally reveal to your employees that HR and corporate leadership are totally unaware of the real problems that frustrate them.
  • Happy people may still quit — if you conduct delayed post-exit interviews, you may find that otherwise happy employees may still quit for reasons not normally addressed in happiness efforts. This may mean that your employees are happy with the company overall, but they still want more in pay, opportunities, and new challenges.
  • Unions are skeptical — if you operate in a union environment, be aware that unions generally focus on job security and “the money.” That means that they are often suspicious about happiness perks that are not written into the contract.
  • Having everything doesn’t guarantee happiness — corporate leaders somehow believe that providing employees with everything that’s fun and exciting will make them happy. But if you look at the experience of most large Lotto winners who have everything, you’ll find that most are generally not happy as a result of winning.
  • Other factors impact happiness — external factors like an employee’s family life, their health, and the economy have a significant impact on employee happiness. So be careful about taking credit or blame when employee happiness levels change. For example, if the unemployment rate goes up 50 percent, and you do nothing, you can expect a corresponding jump in employee happiness. Because in a bad economy, simply having job security is enough to make many of your employees happier.

Final Thoughts

Like any important employee program, putting someone in charge of happiness and using metrics to continually improve it are essential if you expect to even have a small probability of success. Simply copying the perks that are offered at your competitors and letting your culture self-manage happiness will on the other hand surely lead to failure. And if you decide to skip this passing fad altogether, realize that there are 20+ factors that impact employee productivity, so focusing on one tangential factor simply cannot have a major impact on increasing it. Having happy workers with a weak plan, insufficient tools, and no training will never produce positive business results.

And finally, the perspective of shareholders should also be considered. They want employees to be focused and driven, and these owners expect those behaviors to come as a result of pressure to perform and rewards that only come when you do. In general, they don’t support any perks that don’t have a measurable and direct impact on employee productivity.

This article is part of a series called Opinion.