A Dozen Good Reasons You Should be Cautious About Employee Happiness

Happy Millennials

First of two parts

Ever since the Declaration of Independence, “the pursuit of happiness” has been a national goal.

Only recently, however, 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.

The happiness fad is everywhere

For example, there are now Chief Happiness Officers, a Happiness Institute, and numerous happiness magazines and blogs. There is even a popular book titled 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.

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.

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.

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What’s wrong with a focus on employee happiness? 

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 plus 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 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,” according to 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. 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 return on investment.
  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 the same. 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.

Tomorrow: Getting Beyond a Focus on Employee “Happiness” 

About the Author

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Dr. John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions. He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," Staffing.org called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website www.drjohnsullivan.com and on www.ERE.Net. He lives in Pacifica, California.