Your Boss Wants You to Be Happy at Work (and That’s Bad News)

The sound you hear is your boss tossing his computer out the window after reading that headline. After all, isn’t working for people who care about their employees’ feelings a good thing? Before you accuse anyone of being an ingrate, rest assured: individual bosses who care are still a positive. However, as the recently published book The Happiness Industry suggests, the science of “happiness at work” has a dark side, and less to do with your emotional health than your ability to produce, produce, produce.


(Photo Credit: Mayselgrove/Flickr)

The Science of Us recently interviewed The Happiness Industry author William Davies to learn why companies’ focus on employee happiness isn’t the recipe for worker bliss that it appears. Consider:

1. It’s creepily invasive, in a Brave New World sort of way.

Imagine a world in which your manager knows if you’ve cheated on your diet, relapsed in your nicotine addiction, or failed to get in your 10,000 steps today. If you participate in a worker wellness program, especially one involving wearable technology like Fitbit or Jawbone, you already live there.

“The rise of wearable technology is something to be worried about,” Davies explains. “There’s potential for managers to track the movements and behavior and stress levels of their employees. That in itself is not malignant, but it’s often presented as being purely for everyone’s benefit, and that’s just not the case.” 

The whole concept of privacy goes out the window. Even when programs are voluntary, workers may feel pressured to participate in order to be considered a “good” employee.

2. Happiness might not even be quantifiable.

Davies points out that the underlying expectation of the happiness industry is that positive emotions can be scientifically measured. The problem, of course, is that feelings are not jellybeans being poured into a jar. You can’t count them with an accuracy.

Furthermore, quantifying emotion is beside the point, because humans are not machines.

“We need to … actually listen to people when they tell us what they’re feeling,” Davies says. “We’ve become dislocated from our emotions. We think of them as like blood-pressure levels or something. I think it might be idealistic, but we should aim for more democratic types of workplaces, where people can actually voice what’s bothering them and be listened to and dealt with rather than be given a tool that will monitor their facial muscles or a survey that says ‘How do you feel on a scale of 1 to 10?'”

3. When people have problems with work-life balance, it’s not the “life” part that’s to blame.

“All the workplace happiness gurus ever say is, ‘we need to teach more happiness habits to people.’ They’re not saying, ‘We need to reform workplaces,” says Davies.

It’s no accident that these programs concentrate on changing worker behavior, and not altering the space or external culture in which they work. It’s cheaper to change you than to make your working life more pleasant.

Of course, it’s impossible to feel true joy when someone tells you to smile … or else. If companies really wanted to make workers happy, they’d focus more on encouraging employees to take time off, to unplug from technology on weekends and in the evenings, to develop autonomy and purpose, and to communicate their concerns with their managers. The fact that few happiness programs focus on these factors reveals their real purpose: to maximize production, for the benefit of the bottom line, not for the workers who contribute to it.

Read the full interview with William Davies at The Science of Us.

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