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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.

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:

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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.

Tell Us What You Think

Do you think worker happiness programs are good, bad, or both? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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13 Comments on "Your Boss Wants You to Be Happy at Work (and That’s Bad News)"

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I agree with Emily 25 Jun. I just resigned from an industry I have worked in for over 18 yrs. The industry is getting worse not better. Wellness programs are shoved down our throats and we are even penalized financially if we do not participate. I am over working 50-60 hours a week, having no life outside of work, constantly scared of missing something important because of being overloaded an scared of losing my job. My husband and I are simplifying our life style down to the bare necessities. I am never going to work on a salary again where… Read more »

This article is right on target. The Wellness Programs grew out of a desire to control health care costs, but the technology is basically unregulated and therefore ripe for abuse.

I am an analyst for a holding company that owns numerous companies. I about fell out when I saw the note about fit bit. I have a new company goal for 2015 goal package placed upon me where I have to prepare a weekly report on employee movement just exactly as stated. About February, we asked that everyone go to our own internal web portal and apply for the “free” fit bit as a company benefit. I look at the correlation between the time/frequency of employee movement and the company associates production. What is even more worrisome is some of… Read more »
I just go to work to do my job that’s its I don’t care about emotional crap or talking around te water fountain and gossipe or get involved with office politics. This is my choice. Ultimately we have a choice and unfortunately for most ppl they have to work to support their rediculous lifestyles mortgage car payments etc. keeping up the Jones etc. this is what makes work life difficult. Get rid of ur debts and get into reality ppl and u will see how happy u really can be. Work life balance depends on you alone not the employer.… Read more »

I am no longer in corporate America. I didn’t want to leave, but my job was given away to make space for a con man, and everyone he had worked with somewhere, sometime. This man was hired by an EVP,
who listened to the wrong people. Now, the company not only laid off good tried and true workers, but ended up firing the con man and 1/2 his entourage. I am curious, was it worth it?

It was the best thing that could have ever happened to me, the company? Not so much.

There is a lesson here.

Dan Yinger

As the saying goes…”I can’t give you the recipe for success; but, the recipe for failure is to try to please everyone”.

Seems simple enough. Growth comes from pain. Therefore, unless you’re a bit deranged, happiness will not exist at a constant level.

It’s not about unplugging. I have happiness at work, maybe not all of the time, but when I am honesty challenged in a creative way and I overcome it, I fee happy. I also derive happiness from a lot of other things that have nothing to do with work. We often think of work-life as opposing ends – the way in which they overlap makes that perspective seem wrong to me. I met my best friend at work. Working with him, I was happy. I was also extremely productive. He’s a great “uncle” to my kids and when we did… Read more »
I agree that the real incentive behind ‘Employee wellness’ programs is designed to push workers to be more productive. I’ve seen the sanctimonious content of these programs encouraging employees to get more sleep, eat healthier, exercise regularly, and to ‘de-stress’ – it’s HOGWASH because it comes from HR people, not your direct management, and tells you how to live healthier on your own time. Sleeping better, eating healthier, exercising regularly, and reducing stress comes from; 1) having more manageable workloads, 2) more flexible hours and work schedules, 3) reducing or eliminating the unreasonable requirement for commuting to the office every… Read more »
I’m absolutely astounded by some of the comments here Pam 18 Jun in terms of people trying to work out if you’re a health risk by screening your DNA and all the rest of it. Having lived in the US (I’m British) the fear that is prevalent because of the cost of health care just makes me glad we have a national free at the point of us health service. It costs us 9% of our GDP and the US wastes 18% on its half of which you pay for with taxes, half through insurance etc. Nearly all US bankruptcy… Read more »

A growing trend I’ve seen personally at companies is this: increase the cost the employee must shoulder for health insurance, and then “do them a favor” by offering a discount on insurance if they participate in these programs, part of which involves collection of dna. From there, they are able to predict what illnesses you “may” have in the future. Depending on what they find, they may put you on “the list”—companies deny the existence of such a thing, but almost every company has one.


Guess I’m still “old school” in many ways… my happiness is my responsibility. I’ve participated marginally in corporate Wellness programs, but if there’s a personal goal I’ve set for myself I’ll find a way to achieve it on my own time in my own way. I try to stick to my own personal “golden rule” – Work hard; Play hard. But the two don’t need to overlap, and in my opinion are better kept separated.


I don’t really trust those “Wellness programs”. The employer pays for this and I sometimes wonder if an employees’ personal information is being shared with the employer. It’s not the employer’s business to know when an employee is depressed or struggling or whatever. Doctors can’t share their patient’s medical information, unless the patient agrees to it. Same rules should apply to Wellness programs.

Employee Wellness programs are obviously good. Teaching employees about healthy food choices and being mindful of moving their bodies throughout the day is productive and you can make it fun. Encouraging them to make positive changes in their life can only lead to a more productive day. You have to also allow them to create a life balance as well. It’s all part of the same system. You have the opportunity through implementing an wellness program to begin to bring about conscious behavioral changes and balance is a result. We spend most of our time at work and its needs… Read more »
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