Happy employees make submissive employees. Challenging the perks of workplace happiness
Article written by Edgar Cabanas for the Octave webmagazine
The assumption that happy workers are better, more productive workers has become a widely accepted mantra in companies and business circles. When Executive Chairman of Alibaba Group Holding, Jack Ma, shared with the audience at the last World Economic Forum in Davos the idea that the best people to hire for any company were not necessarily those with hard skills but those who are “positive”, “always optimistic”, and “don’t complain”, nobody seemed surprised. Indeed, if something was made clear at Davos was not only that workplace happiness (WH) has today established as a first-order goal for corporations; it was also underscored that affirmations that happy employees are the key of successful organizations are taken by executive leaders and HR managers as little less than as self-evident truths. But are they?
Happier is not always better
To start, the affirmation that happy employees are more productive employees should be put into question. Whereas some studies affirm that happiness stands as the main precursor to productivity, not merely as a result, the fact is that this argument is, to say the least, controversial. Not only because the longstanding concern with the directionality between happiness and performance remains a debatable issue, but also because, best-case scenario, the overall correlations found between these variables are rather weak.
The assumption that happier is better should be also challenged. Although the emphasis on positivity and optimism fits well with the corporate tendency to neutralize complaint and to prohibit the expression of negativity, the affirmation that positivity is always beneficial and advantageous is also misleading.
For instance, studies show that positive moods might drive individuals to engage in challenging activities, but they also propel people to be less persistent in the face of difficult tasks, to make less accurate choices, and to take unnecessary risks. Positive moods might also increase emotional disengagement and prevent care, empathy and solidarity with others under specific circumstances. In this regard, other studies showed that although positivity might increase subjective empathy, it is often associated with a decrease in empathic objective performance, as well as with increased stereotyping and judgement errors in explaining own and others’ behaviour. Moreover, positive individuals do not only tend to ignore situational factors but are also more likely to succumb to inferential biases than people in a negative mood.
For its part, optimism might increase motivation as a result of the anticipation of future positive outcomes, but it also increases the risk of depression when those expectations are not met, or when faced with unexpected adverse events. Relatedly, other studies that suggest that happier workers, whereas more likely to engage with corporate culture, they are also more likely become emotionally needy and dependent on recognition and reassurance from bosses and colleagues, feeling easily neglected and disappointed when not receiving the expected emotional responses.
But whilst it not clear that WH is associated to the alleged benefits that experts and organizations claim, including higher productivity, the corporative interest in happiness has not stopped to gain traction. Indeed, whether small startups or corporate giants, firms worldwide spend increasing amounts of money on coaching services, motivational seminars, mindfulness courses, and a wide array of personal development professionals and happiness experts in their quest to making employees happy. There are various explanations for this, but there it goes two.
Happier employees are cheaper and more submissive, but not more satisfied
One reason to explain the interest on WH is the assumption that happier employees are not only more productive, but also cheaper employees. One the one hand, as happiness has been related to higher mental and physical health (although this is by no means an uncontroverted assumption, either), organizations are interested in promoting everything that allow them to reduce the high costs associated to providing employees with health services and access to healthcare, as well as those related to sick leaves and absenteeism ―Gallup estimates in $153 billion a year the cost of unhealthy employees to US firms.
On the other hand, as higher happiness is typically linked to higher levels of work engagement, organizations seek to reduce the expenses related to staff turnover, which also involves significant compensation and recruitment costs ―between $438,000 and $4 million a year for a 100-person firm in the US, as estimated by Gallup.
But this is not the only explanation. As we have developed in Happycratie. Comment l’industrie du bonheur a pris le contrôle de nos vies, a more essential reason to explain why companies are interested in WH is that happiness has become a useful strategy to justify implicit organizational hierarchies of control and submission to corporate culture.
Paradoxically, whereas WH promises more empowerment and emancipation from corporate control, a closer look at organizational reality shows that promoting happiness at work has been particularly effective in doing exactly the opposite. WH has indeed come in handy to push responsibility downwards, hence making employees more accountable for their own successes and failures, as well as for those of the company. WH has also proved convenient to get more commitment and performance from workers, often for relatively fewer rewards; to sideline the importance of objective working conditions when it comes to job satisfaction, including salaries; or to encourage employees to act autonomously at the same time that they are obliged to comply with company’s expectations, to identify with organizational values, and to show acquiescence and conformity to corporate norms.
Most importantly, WH has proved rather effective to make work contradictions and self-exploitation more tolerable and even acceptable for employees. Workers today are not only expected to flexibly adapt to the continuously changing demands and needs of the corporation by their own means; to personally cope with adverse circumstances, eventual setbacks, and higher workloads; and to adopt a more active, creative and self-directed role in the performance of their tasks. They are also expected to love what they do and to think about it not as a necessity but as a source of pleasure and self-realization. But whereas workers do not seem to have significantly benefited from the promotion of happiness at work, it certainly has proved beneficial for organizations.
To be sure, what makes corporations happy might not be the same that makes workers happy. This does not mean that corporations do not care about their employees, but it would be naïve to think that controlling mechanisms have disappeared within the organizational sphere: they have just been internalized.
So, while on the surface the idea of making employees happy could look like a win-win scenario for both organizations and workers, it might well be the case that, after all, employees are not the most benefited from encouraging happiness at work.
Edgar Cabanas is Research Fellow at Universidad Camilo José Cela (co-financed by the Community of Madrid, Spain [2017-T2/SOC-5414]). He is the author of Happycratie. Comment l’industrie du bonheur a pris le contrôle de nos vies (Premiere Parallèle), co-written with Eva Illouz, as well as the author of several scientific papers (Theory & Psychology, Culture & Psychology) and book chapters (Oxford University Press, Suhrkamp, Routledge) on the topic of happiness.
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