In the most recent World Values Survey, which ranks the countries of the world on happiness, Denmark tops the list. Perhaps not altogether surprising – a small but prosperous country with generous state benefits – and it is joined in the top dozen by Sweden, Ireland, Netherlands and Canada. So far, the results suggest that wealth and relative peace might account for the ranking, but also in the top five is Colombia, and the wealthiest nation, the USA, comes in only 16th.
In fact, surveys like this provide no clear explanation for relative happiness: New Zealand is 15th, ahead of Australia, yet Kiwis are crossing the Tasman in droves. Part of the problem is the breadth and generality of the survey, and it might be more useful to focus specifically on whether people are happy at work. The Danes actually have a word for happiness at work – arbejdsglaede – so they would probably top the list again. The British are thought by many to be among the most dissatisfied at work, but that view may simply reflect the same cultural stereotype that has spawned innumerable jokes about whingeing Poms (‘you know when a plane’s arrived from England, the whining continues after the engines are turned off’). Stereotypes are just that, and seldom add any real understanding to the debate.
So what does ensure that people are happy at work? The question is a really important one. Alex Edmans, Professor of Finance at Wharton Business School points out that the 100 ‘best companies to work for’ (rated by Fortune magazine) in the States earned more than double the annual return for investors than companies in the overall market. In other words, happy people work better. What makes people happy to work for one company but not another has little to do with the actual physical environment – there are few dark, satanic mills anymore. The difference lies in the attitudes and behaviour of management. Edmans describes traditional management theory as treating workers “like any other input – get as much out of them as possible and pay them as little as you can get away with.”. Most managers would argue that they don’t, but between management and workers there is a credibility gap that belies managers’ protestations.
Of course, there are many managers whose people love working for them, but whether you have a manager from heaven or a manager from hell seems arbitrary. The reason goes back to traditional management theory, which informs much of what passes for management training: learning about procedures that trained monkeys can perform. Despite the job being primarily about working with the company’s greatest asset – the people who work there - management training seldom sets out to produce the business equivalent of counsellors. Indeed, in many companies I’ve worked for, the very behaviours that guarantee a miserable workforce are endorsed through promoting managers who act that way.
Unfortunately, the advice offered to ensure a happy workforce often amounts to little more than a superficial shifting of chairs around the deck. What’s needed is a clear understanding of the real duty of care managers have towards their people. Probably everyone would agree that you should never place them under stress, but because of the almost universal confusion over the difference between pressure and stress, managers are often unwittingly doing just that. The psychologists responsible for cultivating the ignorant belief that a bit of stress is good for you have a lot to answer for. Pressure is good, but only when it is understood as a value-free demand for performance. Stress, properly defined, is ruminating about emotional upset, and it is incontrovertibly bad, not just for productivity but also for health and well-being. There is a simple way to manage better and ensure happiness: don’t give your team anything to ruminate about.