Understanding Happiness at Work

05/09/2013 11:18 BST | Updated 03/11/2013 10:12 GMT

This year marks the 70th anniversary of a seminal paper by psychologist Abraham Maslow's theory of motivation which was included in his paper 'A theory of human motivation' published in 1943. This paper proposed that humans possess basic needs which they will attempt, consciously and subconsciously, to satisfy.

Maslow proposed that there were five hierarchical levels of need which were, in order of most basic to advanced, are physiological, safety, social, esteem and self-actualisation. In almost every representation I have ever seen the needs are arranged in a pyramid though this was not included in Maslow's 1943 paper.

It is important to understand that Maslow's contribution was part of the rapidly developing discipline of psychology which earnestly believed that theories could be proposed to make it possible to better understand human behaviour through people's mental processes.

Psychology is a complex subject with a number of perspectives but, in very simple terms, is based on a belief that using scientific study it is entirely possible to create causal links between either an individual or group's mental functions and the behaviour they exhibit.

For organisations trying to achieve higher levels of efficiency the prevailing wisdom had been based on the view that workers do not think about what they do and that the only aspect of the job that had any importance was pay. This, we should remember was one of the key beliefs of those who advocated what was known as 'Scientific Management' which made famous in the 1911 book published by Frederick Winslow Taylor The Principles of Scientific Management.

Scientific management had been challenged by critics as being too simplistic and, they argued, failed to recognise that workers are driven by a whole range of factors beyond pay; something that the great industrialist Henry Ford failed to understand though he revolutionised production methods which lasted until the Japanese showed in the 1950s onwards that a more 'people-centric' approach could allow efficiency and high quality which didn't dehumanise.

The 'failed' experiment of carried out at the Hawthorne Works in the late 1920s and early 1930s, which was a Western Electric factor just outside Chicago, showed that, unsurprisingly, workers do indeed think about what they do and can make sense of their situation; they have sentience and may, if they wish, make choices about their behaviour.

So, what Maslow was providing was a 'framework' which, in general terms, could be used to both consider the way that that workers behave based on their perceived position within the hierarchy of needs.

Even more important was that if it is possible to understand what makes people do particular things then it should be perfectly possible to alter the stimuli so that you can alter behaviour consistent with intended outcomes.

In effect, Maslow's hierarchy of needs assumes that everyone will seek to maximise satisfaction through their place of work.

And, according to this theory, they derive levels of motivation when they believe there is esteem from their achievement and through self-actualisation which allows them personal advancement and growth through doing things that stretches them or creates opportunities to carry out tasks or functions that they might never otherwise have contemplated.

It is probably true that every person can, if provided with sufficient encouragement and support, achieve more. However, the challenge for any organisation is being able to provide sufficient opportunity that will enable everyone to self-actualise.

Indeed, it seems, even Maslow recognised that only a very small proportion of people ever achieve a state where they believe that they can self-actualise (about 2%) and that they tend to be extraordinarily talented and creative; he cited examples such as Einstein, Beethoven and himself.

So, for the majority, the best we can hope for is probably to be reasonably content with what we do and make the best of it.

Some 70 years after his paper was published what more do we know about the realities of what creates happiness at work?

There are many critics of Maslow's proposition of the hierarchy of needs on the basis that whilst it appears to offer useful indications of what 'drives' people, there are too many other factors which may influence people.

As these critics contend, the fact that we individuals means that we all have different preferences and needs; we are not machines and don't conform to a standard 'program'.

Additionally we are not consistent and that our motivations vary according to influences over which we may have little control and possibly largely unrelated to work.

There has always been a vague notion that those who carry out jobs for which they have a strong vocation will tend to be the happiest. Examples such as medicine, nursing teaching and the creative arts come to mind.

However, people involved in such professions are finding that their ability to derive satisfaction is being undermined by increased workload, what they feel to be unreasonable expectations and, in many instances, the surveillance through inspection and bureaucracy.

A case in point is a recent Royal College of Nursing survey of 10,000 of its members which found that almost two-thirds have thought about leaving their job in the last 12 months due to stress.

This survey resonates with what is being discovered in many other professions and would appear to show that Maslow's theory is not finding favour among organisations that have no qualms about using short-term working and zero-hours contracts.

Any dream that Maslow or others may have harboured of a world in which we everyone can all derive happiness in their work is as far away as ever.

It may be that in the future the period between the end of the second world-war and the end of last century as a 'golden period' of continuous employment and careers when advancement were possible and through which satisfaction and, potentially, self-actualisation, could be achieved.

That is not to say that there are a good many who achieve reasonable levels of happiness.

If they do they should consider themselves to be among the privileged few.