Should We Manage Happiness?

Should We Manage Happiness?

The ongoing revolution in employee monitoring technology is making it possible to learn more about employees’ behaviors, habits, health, and even emotions than ever before. Between these new capabilities and the growing understanding of the connection between employee happiness, engagement, and performance, the urge to monitor and manage employees’ happiness isn’t likely to go away anytime soon.

But should employers be in the business of trying to manipulate their employees’ emotions? The Economist argues “no”:

Companies would be much better off forgetting wishy-washy goals like encouraging contentment. They should concentrate on eliminating specific annoyances, such as time-wasting meetings and pointless memos. Instead, they are likely to develop ever more sophisticated ways of measuring the emotional state of their employees. Academics are already busy creating smartphone apps that help people keep track of their moods, such as Track Your Happiness and Moodscope. It may not be long before human-resource departments start measuring workplace euphoria via apps, cameras and voice recorders.

The idea of companies employing jolly good fellows and “happiness alchemists” may be cringe-making, but is there anything else really wrong with it? Various academic studies suggest that “emotional labour” can bring significant costs. The more employees are obliged to fix their faces with a rictus smile or express joy at a customer’s choice of shoes, the more likely they are to suffer problems of burnout. And the contradiction between companies demanding more displays of contentment from workers, even as they put them on miserably short-term contracts and turn them into self-employed “partners”, is becoming more stark.

But the biggest problem with the cult of happiness is that it is an unacceptable invasion of individual liberty.

We’ve discussed this before in the context of mandatory positivity—workplace policies that require employees to put on a happy face in front of their colleagues or customers. Not only are regulators skeptical of these policies, they have a tendency to backfire, putting additional strain on employees to not only do their jobs but also enjoy them, or pretend to. Having to worry about looking happy can leave employees less able to concentrate on their jobs and can actually hurt performance.