Happiness is less of a desire and more of an obligation today. I have to be happy because any other way would not make my life worthwhile. And since happiness is never permanent, making it obligatory is both a lost cause and an exhausting undertaking. Yet, the charade of seeking happiness has somehow found its permanent way into our lives, and that includes our work lives. The importance of workplace happiness is felt more passionately now than ever. And as it seems, the conversation around workplace happiness isn’t just a passing fad; it is here to stay.
The corporate philosophy that equates happy employees to productive employees has been adopted, propagated, and widely accepted across the board. New departments are being set up. Special happiness officers are being appointed. Dedicated meeting agendas and budgets are being finalised. The management, around the world, has geared to pull every trick to make sure employees remain happy (whatever that means).
Snack breaks, gym, unwind rooms, free lunches, nap rooms, fun office décor, regular office parties, outside premise get-togethers and whatnot. These are just some of the frequently used tools in the grand scheme of achieving a higher employee happiness quotient. How much such happiness activities help, in reality, is a question for human resource departments to answer.
There’s a famous Mark Twain quote that correlates enjoyment at work to the success you set out to achieve. “The law of work seems unfair, but nothing can change it; the more enjoyment you get out of your work, the more money you will make,” Twain concludes. Both Twain and his words have found takers in the corporate world. While our HR works hard to make sure “fun” is intact at the workplace, Twain’s words often found space on corporate building walls as a reminder.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with seeking enjoyment/fun/happiness when at work. My question is how sure are we that workplace happiness leads to success?
Practically speaking, how much of ourselves should we invest in the pursuit of happiness before it backfires? And it will backfire. It will backfire because the continuous happiness chase can be exhausting. And here we are building an entire narrative that workplace happiness is imperative to success.
So, Is It Okay To Romanticise Work As Anything Other than Just Work?
To understand this, we have to understand what work actually means to millions of people. What work means to the e-commerce delivery boys or to the healthcare professionals forced to leave their families for months during the pandemic and work in life-threatening conditions without proper safety measures. What work means for millions trapped outside of formal sectors or to the 9 to 5 toilers. For them and many other professionals, work is work as most of them cannot afford to ask for more. Work for many is survival. Happy or not happy!
All this conversation about workplace happiness loses its meaning when 60% of the workforce is engaged in the informal sector. These people work with no protection, no benefits, and no job security whatsoever. For that matter, the condition is not so different if we consider many working in the formal sector as well.
A 2019 research by International Labour Organisation estimated 2.8 million deaths every year due to workplace stress, excessively long working hours and related diseases.
The bottom line is, working conditions around the world in some of the most popular professions are dire, to say the least. So, how justified is the call to seek happiness at the workplace in a rather superficial way knowing that this narrative, in reality, is abysmally far-fetched.
Besides, How Accurate is Correlating Workplace Happiness to Success?
What is success? I’m assuming we all have different perceptions when it comes to success. Still, if one has to define it, success often appears to be a combination of many things that are beyond our control. How and when success touches someone heavily depends on their social background, genetics, financial inheritance, and sometimes pure luck. One can blame the skewed social structure of our societies, but that doesn’t change the facts. Hard work, which is a universally propagated conundrum plays little role in the overall success. And then there is the farce of meritocracy.
Corporate leadership has the world fooled. Efficiently. The perception that meritocracy governs the corporate sector is meticulously built and craftily sold to millions. Research, however, says otherwise.
Office politics, favouritism, higher-lower management disconnect, and no real job satisfaction are some of the problems on the rise in the private sector. Success here is governed by not just performance. But somehow, the corporations have been convinced by the workplace happiness myth. It’s not that hard to understand why because let’s be honest, organising a staff picnic is any day easier task than fixing core issues breading beneath the carpet.
One significant aspect that the believers in workplace happiness invariably ignore is job satisfaction. It is difficult to talk about job satisfaction without questioning every foundation surrounding us. What is important to understand is that job satisfaction is not always money or success oriented. The value attached to the work you are doing usually dictates the satisfaction you set out to gain at the end of a working day.
Most people in the modern corporate setting don’t even feel good about the actual work they are doing. Many contemporary jobs deal in tasks that appear redundant, not just to the people around but even to those who are doing these jobs. This actually brings us to the phenomenon which was first mentioned and studied in detail in a book by David Graeber — Bullshit Jobs!
What are Bullshit Jobs?
Anthropologist and Professor David Graeber presented the concept in his book titled — Bullshit Jobs — and argued how millions of people across the world are simply unhappy at work because they believe their work doesn’t have any meaning or value. Bullshit jobs are jobs that seem pointless in the grand scheme of things. Strangely, even though it hardly finds space in mainstream discussions, those performing the pointless jobs are well aware. In fact, this self-awareness serves as a reason for dissatisfaction at work.
Thanks to technological advancements and lack of demand for labour-intensive work, an entire generation has been forced into paper-intensive work weeks. Mostly based in administration departments, this workforce is usually overlooked. Professionals in clerical positions, administrations, telemarketing, consulting, corporate law, and service are fighting a hidden battle. The sad reality of their bullshit jobs is neither accepted in corporate board rooms nor talked about in lunch breaks.
The point is, the conversation about workplace happiness is fragmentary. And the discussion and effort towards ensuring employee “happiness” is surface level. To add more to the already flawed vision, we are not even sure about the concept. Does workplace happiness really enhance performance or overall company output?
Does Workplace Happiness Have a Positive Impact?
It is a question that should be asked first. Contrary to popular perception, research indicates a contrasting opinion. Studies suggest angry or dissatisfied people are more productive. They are also supposed to be better at negotiations, in life or at work. When you are dissatisfied, your zeal to perform is much higher. On the other hand, happiness can be a huge dilutor. Too much positive excitement can make people delusional and far from reality.
Happiness is fleeting; it’s not permanent. And constant search for something that is transitory or short-lived can lead to dissatisfaction. The pressure of ensuring happiness in life and at work has the capacity to not only demotivate but have a negative impact on the entire journey.
So, while management is using surface-level workplace happiness talk as a manipulation technique, it is the employee who is setting unrealistic expectation from the job for themselves. As much as happiness can uplift spirits, the pressure to be consistently happy or fun can pull anyone down.
So, What About Workplace Then?
The focus during work should be on work, not the workplace. Unfortunately, work-life being anything other than happy raises eyebrows these days. People expect you to not only be happy at what you do for a living but also enjoy every day. But it wasn’t always like this. There was a time when getting work was considered a privilege, and not the other way around.
Interestingly, if we look at the unemployment rates in different economies, whether democracies or autocracies, having work should really feel like a privilege even now.
Workplace happiness should be all about job satisfaction, which can only be achieved through dialogue. Your workplace doesn’t have to be fun and your work shouldn’t have to draw you the highest paycheques. What is needed is an effective dialogue about the actual work with the management. What is required is to have open and approachable higher management.
Otherwise, work is just that, work. And as long as this basic fact is stitched in our brains and heart, one will take it just as that, work.