By Rex W. Huppke, Chicago Tribune reporter
January 1, 2012
Rarely do we associate the words "happiness" and "work." They're an unlikely pairing, like "squirrel" and "yummy" or "Kardashian" and "admirable."
But because it's the new year and I'm feeling peppy and optimistic, let's connect those two nouns with a preposition and consider the possibility of "happiness at work."
We're inclined to assume that companies care only about the bottom line. That assumption remains reasonable. However, economists have been giving more serious consideration to the idea that money shouldn't be the lone measurement of a country's success, that overall well-being should be a factor. And that thinking has begun trickling down to businesses.
"At the firm level, I think it really is happening," said Julia Kirby, editor at large for the Harvard Business Review, which has an article titled "The Economics of Well-Being" in its most recent edition. "Are firms getting that happiness would drive higher profitability? Absolutely, they get that. I don't know of any major company that doesn't do employee satisfaction surveys or measures of employee engagement."
The concept of factoring happiness into economic measures began in the 1970s in the South Asian kingdom of Bhutan. King Jigme Singye Wangchuck chose to eschew the standard idea of gross national product by measuring Gross National Happiness, a figure that takes into account economics along with social progress and quality of life.
The thinking was that economic success and the Buddhist kingdom's spiritual well-being should reinforce each other.
It has taken some time, but this concept has been catching on in other countries, including France and England, and, as the Harvard Business Review article says: "… although the replacing-GDP discussion may seem a little airy, its growing credibility in important circles could give it a real impact on economic policy. And it parallels efforts in some boardrooms to use new metrics to measure overall success."
Kirby noted that in recent years, Tony Hsieh, chief executive of online shoe store Zappos.com, and entrepreneur and former AOL executive Ted Leonsis have written books titled, respectively, "Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose" and "The Business of Happiness: 6 Secrets to Extraordinary Success in Work and Life." Both advocate the importance of what is essentially a dual bottom line — financial wellness and social impact.
"It's success measured on a broader set of value measures than just these financial ones," Kirby said. "It's as though you've been looking at things in black and white and now we have the ability to measure value in color."
The problem, of course, is that happiness is a tricky thing to measure, whereas money is easy to count. For companies to embrace the importance of workplace happiness might require a leap of faith, but I'd argue it's a pretty short leap.
If a company puts emphasis — sincere emphasis — on not just making money but also on being a positive force in the community and looking out for the well-being of its employees and their families, doesn't it seem logical that the company's odds of success would grow?
"You have to get people to show up with their hearts and minds," Kirby said. "You can't just hire their hands, and have their hearts and minds elsewhere."
So say we get companies to agree that workplace happiness must be part of the equation. What is it that makes a workplace happy?
Mark Murphy, author of "Hiring for Attitude: A Revolutionary Approach to Recruiting Star Performers With Both Tremendous Skills and Superb Attitude" and CEO of the management consulting firm Leadership IQ, has researched this and found that it has little to do with the clever perks and attempts at office fun that many companies employ.
Studying businesses in the United States and China, Murphy found that offices that have "enterprising cultures" — ones where creativity and intelligence are valued and people advance based on merit and not seniority — have the most engaged employees.
"It's not about social things like many think, like making everybody happy because everybody has a great friend at work," Murphy said. "Google has the cafeteria and the food and the dry cleaning, and some people think that's the key to happiness. But the real thing that makes Google so successful is the competition of ideas, the pure meritocracy, whoever has the best idea wins."
According to Murphy's study of more than 1,400 U.S.-based companies, only about 20 percent of employees consider themselves to be "highly engaged." So, clearly, there's work to be done.
"What they really need is a workplace that isn't going to irritate them," Murphy said. "A workplace where if they have a really good idea, the boss is going to recognize it, even if it upsets 20 years of doing things a certain way."
So, as the new year begins, I'm making a personal plea to business owners, bosses and managers to consider the importance of happiness. And not simply as a means to an end.
Don't focus on boosting employee morale simply as a sneaky way of squeezing more work and loyalty out of employees. Do it because it's the right thing to do.
A better workplace fosters a better workforce, and that makes clients happier, makes the community healthier and generally makes the world better.
And if you, the business, do good, it's a reasonable bet that good will follow.
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