Workplace happiness is a job for us all

Employers are not just responsible for the bottom line, they have obligations to maintain the mental and physical wellbeing of staff

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Eating at a restaurant in Abu Dhabi not long ago, I was struck by the melancholy attitude of our waitress. She was polite and attentive enough, but the professional veneer had worn thin and her sadness was easy to see. As she turned and walked away from our table I noticed the slogan on the back of her franchise-branded t-shirt. It read: “I love my job”.

Recently, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid gave a group of public-sector managers in Dubai six months to improve what he described as unacceptably low employee morale. This directive was based on the results of a survey of job satisfaction in government workers. His ultimatum was loud and clear: managers need to work smarter and harder towards keeping workers happy.

Workplace wellbeing is an integral part of the global happiness agenda. The average person is said to spend around 90,000 hours at work, or roughly a third of their adult lives. If we are not content in our work, it can be a huge blow to our mental and physical health.

Painting pictures of smiley faces on walls and forcing employees to wear “Happy to help” badges is not a solution. In some cases, such measures might actually make matters worse, creating a culture in which employees burn themselves out trying to fake happiness and mask their true emotions. For workers to flourish, they also need to know that it is OK not to feel OK.

The growing importance of job satisfaction is underscored by the enormous financial implications of workplace absenteeism and presenteeism. The absentee is, obviously, an employee who does not turn up to work. The presentee is one who does, but is so disengaged that their attendance is counterproductive.

The financial implications of absenteeism are well documented. The UK Office for National Statistics reports that the country loses 137 million working days per year to absence − the equivalent of 4.3 days per worker, at a cost of around £8.4 billion (Dh40.6bn). Exactly how much of this absence is directly related to working conditions is unknown, but even the most conservative estimates put the figure at around 15 per cent.

Although harder to measure, the economic impact of presenteeism is also high. A recent US study of 29,000 working adults put the national costs of presenteeism at $150bn (Dh551bn) a year. Chronically dissatisfied workers have knock on effects, forcing colleagues to pick up the slack and even passing similar attitudes on to them.

There is an old saying in business that if you want happy customers, then you need happy employees. If that’s true, then the detrimental effects of miserable workers should be equally clear.

Sheikh Mohammed’s demands should be a wake-up call not just for the public-sector managers in question, but for anyone responsible for the working lives of other human beings. After all, managers and business owners are not just accountable for productivity and key performance indicators, they are responsible for safeguarding the health of those people whose skills and efforts they rely on every day.

This Dubai public-sector initiative was driven by survey results. Such carefully gathered data can reveal a great deal. However, hedonometry – or the measuring of happiness − is a growing field. Employers can now pull information from a variety of sources, including social media use, staff turnover, sick leave and overall absence levels to build up a richer and much more complex picture of workplace satisfaction.

The Fraser Institute – a Canadian think tank dedicated to the promotion of wellbeing and quality of life − has a wonderful motto: “If it matters, measure it”. Employee satisfaction matters and it should be measured. A good working culture can give people a sense of meaning, purpose and identity. A bad one can sap confidence, exacerbate stress and create deep and lasting feelings of insecurity. Given how long we spend in our places of employment, we owe it to ourselves to make sure they really work for all of us.

Dr Justin Thomas is professor of psychology at Zayed University