It’s been a funny old August. The weather has been cooler and the rain has been heavier. Not depressingly bad but neither spirit-raisingly good. And at the same time our usual silly season of a light-hearted news agenda has been replaced with economic doom and gloom, international conflict, and riots. It’s all been rather serious and has left some feeling short-changed. Whereas many of us normally look forward to September with its back-to-school feeling and fond memories of covering rugby boots with dubbin, this year I detect an early onset of SAD. And so it can’t be good for business if some are trudging back to work after their summer break with all the enthusiasm of the condemned man climbing the gallows.
Many people take work too seriously and work under huge pressure. They work long hours, grab sandwiches at their desk, stay late, work on the train, and check emails before going to bed. Work becomes a treadmill of constant tasks. The working environment may be different but the nature of the activity wouldn’t be out of place in a novel by Dickens or Gaskell, or a book by Engels. With pressure on resources and fear of redundancy many are hunkering down and getting on with what’s in front of them, fearful of upsetting the fragile apple cart. Shoulders are down, noses are at the grindstone, and humour seems in pretty short supply.
Work seems to have become more demanding and unproductive in direct correlation with the increase in technology designed to make it simpler. We have become slaves to our tools. Management seems reluctant to rid itself of legacy attitudes and hierarchical thinking. Just when technology is trying to liberate society, leaders are still trying to exert control. So we have a curious mix of a nine to five behaviour and working from home at the same time, leading to an always on culture. People are expected to embrace new ways of working without letting go of the old ways. New tasks and objectives arrive on top of, rather than instead of, previous goals. Work has become busier and less productive. And where’s the fun in that.
There are plenty of studies to show the effect of happiness on the workplace. Indeed, happiness gurus have been taking their messages to the highest levels in government. And yet each time something big happens seriousness returns to stifle the fun. The solution to all our woes is not, apparently, to refigure our values but to spend more. Economic prosperity leads to happiness, we’re told, despite the evidence which seems to show that it leads to debt. The trick, surely, is to start the other way round. Happiness leads to prosperity: emotional, physical and economic.
Until recently the received wisdom was that engaged employees were happy employees. Effort and resources were ploughed into expensive surveys designed to measure whether a workforce was content and, as the phrase went, prepared to go the extra mile. But happiness often remained elusive, perhaps because efforts to instil it were either contrived or missed the point.
Happiness comes from three main routes: having achievable goals; being of service to others; and having the time and space to be aware of and take pleasure in the moment and the environment. These three things are often absent in our daily work lives. Remuneration is can be divisive, with goals often creating competition between teams and individuals; goals are set in one moment of time but change and become muddled with other day-to-day priorities. And despite the best endeavours of office planners, the work environment is often noisy and frantic.
So rather than spend money on engagement surveys employers should start to liberate their employees and allow them to use to technology to be more agile, more productive and to work less hard. A less serious attitude to work coupled with the opportunity to challenge the received way of working can liberate people from the drudgery of work. After all, the closer ones nose is to the grindstone, the less one is able to see the bigger picture. Oh, and a few more jokes would be good.