What if being happy at work is all just a huge scam?

Being Happy At Work Is A Scam

For people that care about this kind of stuff (**raises hand**), now seems to be kind of a landmark time in the “Intersection Of Happiness And Work” research/execution world. Will Davies wrote an article for The Atlantic in June on worker happiness (long and good), which frames some of the basic problems well:

Few private-sector managers are required to negotiate with unions any longer, but nearly all of them confront a much trickier challenge, of dealing with employees who are regularly absent, unmotivated, or suffering from persistent, low-level mental-health problems. Resistance to work no longer manifests itself in organized voice or outright refusal, but in diffuse forms of apathy and chronic health problems. The border separating general ennui from clinical mental-health problems is especially challenging to managers in 21st century workplaces, seeing as it requires them to ask personal questions on matters that they are largely unqualified to deal with.

Now Harvard Business Review has an article about “The Happiness Research We’re Ignoring,” including ideas like this:

Happiness doesn’t necessarily lead to increased productivity. A stream of research shows some contradictory results about the relationship between happiness — which is often defined as “job satisfaction” — and productivity. One study on British supermarkets even suggests there might be a negative correlation between job satisfaction and corporate productivity: The more miserable the employees were, the better the profits. Sure, other studies have pointed in the opposite direction, saying that there is a link between feeling content with work and being productive. But even these studies, when considered as a whole, demonstrates a relatively weak correlation.

That British supermarket stat is terrifying, eh?

Now let me shift to a personal area. I posted an older article on LinkedIn today — this one — and I got a comment from my man Richard, who is one of those people you meet on LinkedIn and has similar viewpoints to you, but you’ll probably never meet in real life (I sadly have about 70 such people in my life right now). Here was his comment:

Those studies of happiness almost always are simply surveys, nor do they take into account opportunity cost. Money doesn’t solve all problems, but a lack of it creates problems that increase stress and decrease happiness. And the problem is managers read articles like this and figure they don’t have to pay people so long as they give them bagels on Fridays and are really, really encouraging at work. Money matters, plain and simple.

I’ve written a little about this before, but stop and think about this for a second, right?

  • The job of a company is to make money, generally speaking.
  • Personnel costs are about half of money going out.
  • Companies have a legit reason to want to find ways to pay people less.
  • If they just pay everyone but the top dogs 20K, people will eventually leave en masse.
  • If that happens, you’re always redefining your goals and skills and positions, which also sucks.
  • So they pay people a certain level and try to keep earnings stagnant.
  • But we’re social beings, so we need a sense of connection/perks back to the bigger idea too.
  • So it’s Free Bagel Friday!

So … is the whole idea of happiness at work just a giant scam designed to keep our wages down? It might be, yes. But on the flip side, there’s some documented research on the power of friends at work and the idea of being respected there too, which seem to tie back to happiness.

What do you think?


Ted Bauer


  1. Honesty is the best policy. Works sucks for the overwhelming majority of people, so let’s start there and recognize that most people don’t give a shit about their tasks and rules and regulations and governance and compliance, yada yada.

    The next step is to alleviate as many *controllable* things that add this drudgery as possible.

    On the other hand, some people are just terrible at everything they do. They had shitty parents, or are just hard-wired to be lazy and difficult, or whatever else. Those people can’t be pleased regardless of what steps are taken. Good managers and real leaders can recognize these things and enable the least shitty environment, lol.

  2. If I were a manager I honestly wouldn’t be concerned about happiness at work in the aggregate. I would concentrate on definable criteria. Are my employees paid a market rate for their work? Are their hours reasonable most of the time? Is the benefits package comparable to what’s offered elsewhere? Is the PTO offered comparable to elsewhere? What other perks, if any, does the company offer that people aren’t using that I can push?

    The problem with measurement at the bottom line is it often doesn’t include all factors. Turnover, for example. It’s known it has a cost, but few companies tally that cost much less feed f back into their managers’ reviews, or into their financials. The best analogy is with capital equipment in a factory. You know how many widgets it’s meant to pump out on average and at maximum, what its maintenance schedule is, and what you need to feed into it to make it work. A production manager who repeatedly ran his machines to burnout requiring replacement would be fired for incompetence, because the cost of replacement and the capital loss are known and recorded. A manager who does exactly the same thing to employees is called ‘demanding,’ and rewarded, because no one gives a shit when their employees burnout and need to be replaced, despite the fact that it also comes at a high cost. No one bothers to record it, is all.

    Further, in the recruiting process, if a buyer in a factory refused to buy the necessary coiled steel to make a plant run so they could make products, and the whole plant ground to a halt, management would want to know why. If it was found that buyer saw dozens of potential sources for steel coil, many of which met their desired specs on paper, and said he just didn’t buy any of them because he felt they “weren’t the right fit,” again he’d be fired for incompetence. But again, do the same thing as a manager, and you’re ‘picky,’ or ‘demanding,’ or ‘not willing to settle,’ and never an incompetent fool who’s afraid to make a decision.

    If companies actually captured the cost of all their recruiting and HR blunders and feed them into their bottom lines and saw the massive cost and all the lost revenue due to operating below capacity and due to turnover from overwork, stress, lack of training, etc., many would likely make some very necessary changes. But most don’t. Those costs are largely unseen, unacknowledged, and even unknown to most businesses. While they are dialed in to the capital costs of their machinery and technology, know their limits and replacement costs, and expected lifecycles, when it comes to people they know jack shit and don’t care to know. As a result a company’s machinery often gets treated better than its people.

    Instead of getting all hot and bothered about making people happy, managers should concern themselves with making sure people are compensated fairly and not run into the ground with overwork to maximize their useful life to the company; concentrate on the basics of pay, hours, benefits, and off time. Which will in turn make it far more likely the person will stay with the company longer. There will always be mismatches, drop outs, incompetent workers and managers. That’s not the problem, because as long as we live this side of perfection it will always be the case. The goal is to know the costs and track them so when your idiot manager has decided it’s in his interests to jack everyone’s hours to 70 per week you can step in and say, “No, moron, people generally tap out in productivity at 35 to 45 hours, and the more brain intensive the work the shorter their useful productive span. So get your shit together, learn how to use your headcount better or make an argument for more, which will incidentally be cheaper because even lacking overtime we’ll lose people to burnout and have to replace them, or get another job suited for your limited intelligence.”

    • Good point…cover the basics (compensation/benefits/PTO/etc.), which are pretty easily tracked, and the more difficult metric of “happiness” will follow.

      • Or just don’t worry about it. To be honest what makes people happy can differ so wildly as to not merit attention on an organizational level. On the team level it matters, and team leaders likely influence happiness more than any other person or part of any organization. However, team leaders are rarely if ever empowered to any significant degree to address individual issues which would affect happiness. And if they were, and did, it would likely make other people unhappy because one person got a ‘perk’ that others wanted but were too timid to ask for, or that they now see the value in, but if the TL let everyone have that perk it’d bust his/her budget or raise compliance issues, etc., etc., etc. Trying to make everyone happy is a losing battle, it can’t be done.

        But the larger issue is employers have to at least satisfy a lot of people, if not make them dance with happiness. As an employee you need your employer, one party for all intents and purposes, to be satisfied with your performance. As an employer, you need ALL your employees to be satisfied with yours. So, how do you meet the needs of what can be a massive number of people? Stick to the basics, the common pain points of almost all people. All people want a fair wage, work life balance, and some decent benefits so if they die, they die in a bed with pain killers liberally administered. And while those points are simple to address, they also have the most visible and sizable impact on the bottom line. Increasing pay even marginally across a lot of employees can send your overhead spiraling. But, the further behind the ball you get, the harder it is to correct. But, if you account for the losses of turnover, it hit to overhead tends to come down at least a bit, and sometimes significantly.

        This is why CEOs and managers love articles based on surveys where people say they don’t care about money, however a massive load of BS it is. They’d rather paint the walls taupe and serve cupcakes on a regular basis so long as they don’t have to pay people, and will drive their companies into the grounds of utter failure before admitting their problems might stem from the fact that they pay like shit.

        I personally worked for a company like this at my last job. Both of their plants were paying less than McDonald’s. They were also underpaying in two key corporate departments. After years and years of salary surveys and trying to explain the costs of turnover, which was over 50% on average across all those departments, they finally raised salaries for most people, let attrition take out low performers, and brought new people into the company on the new pay scales. Turnover dropped like a rock, almost overnight. They had two plants, one got changes to their pay scales, the other is still trudging along with lower than market pay and sky high turnover. That manager is convinced pay doesn’t matter, that he really needs to get a ‘team spirit’ going there, an that he just needs ‘the right kind of people’ and things will just magically start working. That ‘the right kind of people’ might demand more money has never occurred to him, like most corporate slugs he simply thinks he’s entitled to his workforce.

        It’s funny, when CEOs negotiate their contracts they want MONEY, not job satisfaction or impactfulness or other buzzword bullshit. Even when they screw up to the point of getting fired, they want MONEY in their golden parachutes, not meaningful this of fulfilling that. And then they turn around and try to convince their employees that they don’t really want, and shouldn’t bother themselves with all that troublesome money. No, they want job satisfaction, fulfilling and meaningful relationships, and should leave all that bothersome cash to their betters to rake in. Then those CEOs write LinkedIn articles about the value and joy of taking a six month paid ‘sabbatical’ and how wonderful time off is for productivity while neglecting to mention that their employees get three days off a year for sick leave, and 5 days for vacation, and get fired for taking one hour more regardless of circumstances.

        My advice follows that of Keith Halperin: unleash your inner CEO. Take everything you can while you can and demand more. Stop letting the richest people in the world act like they’re doing you a favor by paying you at all for work they want done.

  3. Ted, Great article with a provocative question. I am not going to argue the points of the respondents.

    Agreed: Corps should not be allowed to be A’holes, and bad citizens who cheat, lie and steal from “assets” without recourse. Those behaviors must change. We all need money of the equity variety that allows us to be healthy human beings. We must work diligently to build new businesses that build prosperity for everyone. That said…

    Studies also show that once our needs are taken care of at a comfortable, no worries level, it is the intrinsic reward that kick in.

    Not all intrinsic rewards are the same. Struggle or challenge may be as intrinsically rewarding as happiness. I love that you debunk happiness because it is super trendy, PC and it isn’t a known human motivator. Knowledge, study, power, money, beauty, art, self actualization, giving, creating, faith – these are some of the motivations as researched by behavioral psychologists. And these appear in different combination for everyone.

    1) Good businesses take care of people’s needs and of their well being.
    2) Happiness isn’t everything its cracked up to be.

    Thanks, Ted for your intellectual bravery.

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