For Happiness

You cannot force people to be happy. However you can remove the most common causes of unhappiness and create an environment in which it is much easier to be happy and fulfilled at work.

The Economist announced this week that it was "Against Happiness". There is perhaps some irony in the title but the author, 'Schumpeter', seems to even be annoyed at organisations who seek to get their people to be nice to customers.

Schumpeter concludes with outrage at the US health care provider Ochsner that requires its workers to make eye contact and smile when they come within 10 metres of a patient. Is that so terrible to ask? Would the author prefer, when they go to hospital, to be ignored and frowned at? I do know one or two places which I could recommend to him, but which I am careful to avoid.

I am aware of the research on which the Ochsner policy is based, which identifies 5 steps to patient satisfaction: smile; establish eye contact; introduce yourself; tell them what you are doing and why; conclude by asking "is there anything else you need help with?". Indeed I include these in training I deliver for hospital consultants and GPs.

At first I worried that these professional medics would find this basic advice a bit patronising. Instead I find they are delighted to be reminded of simple steps that cost nothing and make a real difference.

Should doctors be focused only on the right diagnosis and treatment? Virtually all those I have worked with agree that patient satisfaction is important and has an effect on how well the patient recovers, a belief backed by research published in the BMJ. The US private medical insurer Humana found that patients working with the happiest nurses made 70% fewer visits to hospitals (and, yes, that meant it cost Humana much less if nurses were happy).

I do have an interest in this. Running a company called Happy it is pretty clear, from the moment you apply for a job, that you can't be miserable with one of our customers. But isn't that actually true of all companies? Will Schumpeter next be complaining about the number of companies who now expect their staff to deliver good customer service to their clients, and not just act how they happen to feel at any time?

Schumpeter's critique is of "companies that try to turn happiness into a management tool". And they do have a point about firms that expect their staff to be good to customers but do themsleves treat their staff badly. As one comment says, summing up those environments, "the floggings will continue until morale improves".

But is it always a cynical ploy. Might it be that some organisations, in the tradition of companies like Cadburys and Fry, actually do want their employees to be happy?

Another comment, from 'Expatbag', notes that "I've worked on teams where people were genuinely happy. It was pure magic in terms of work quality and productivity." This is surely something to strive for.

A colleague at one of our clients was asked to increase staff happiness. He brought in hula hoops and games and made people have fun. He measured staff happiness before and after, and found that happiness ... had gone down.

What he discovered is that you can't "make people have fun" and that it's not about the trivial stuff. He switched tacks and instead focused on talking with his people and helping them find meaning and purpose in their jobs, and ensuring they had the autonomy to do their job well. Their target is to be "as happy as Denmark" (famously the happiest nation on earth, according to international surveys) and they are now on track for that.

You cannot force people to be happy. However you can remove the most common causes of unhappiness and create an environment in which it is much easier to be happy and fulfilled at work.

In our experience people do not like micromanagement and being told what to do. They dislike blame cultures, not knowing what is going on and a lack of control over their job. We help organisations create happy workplaces and the good news is that, with commitment from the top to real change, it isn't hard to do.

Key steps include helping people to do something they are good at, and that gives them meaning; trusting them and giving them freedom (within guidelines) to choose their way to do things; changing the manager role to one of coaching; creating a positive no blame culture (even celebrate mistakes) and having an open and transparent organisation.

Create an environment where your people are happy and look forward to coming to work, and you will have done a little bit of good in the world. And, even better, you will probably have a more innovative and productive company as a result.