For Happiness - a response to The Economist
29 Sep 2016 | Henry Stewart
Workplaces where people are genuinely happy are
better for staff, customers and company performance, argues Henry
The Economist announced this week that it was "Against Happiness". There is perhaps some
irony in the title but the author seems to even be annoyed at
organisations who seek to get their people to be nice to
The article 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, 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 the
Economist be complaining next about the number of companies who now
expect their staff to deliver good customer service to their
The Economist's critique is of "companies that try to turn
happiness into a management tool". And there is an important point
here about firms that expect their staff to be good to customers
but do themselves treat their staff badly. As one comment says,
summing up those environments, "the floggings will continue until
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 says "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
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
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.
Henry Stewart is founder and Chief
Happiness Officer of training company Happy Ltd. Happy
has been rated the best company in the UK for customer service (by
Management Today) and as one of the best 20 workplaces in the UK
(Financial Times / Great Place to Work Institute). Henry is also a
popular business speaker and author. Follow him at @happyhenry