Happy workforce or unhappy workhorse?


In the last few months, one of our most challenging and rewarding projects has been working for an NHS Trust to develop an internal communications campaign to help stem bullying in the workplace.

It’s an issue the Health Service is taking very seriously. Lord Prior, the minister for NHS Productivity, described his concern at a potentially “toxic” culture.

But the problem is of course not limited to the Health Service. It affects workplaces throughout the UK. A YouGov survey commissioned by the TUC showed that nearly a third of people had been bullied at work.

As Lord Prior suggests, “Bullying starts when performance management begins.”

But in building our campaign, we have found it helpful to consider the other and broader side of the coin, in particular the growing consensus that positive workplace management can deliver as much business benefit as effective performance management.

The breakout zones, pool tables and gaming areas of hi-tech start-ups are just one aspect of this trend. The authors of the book, The Wellness Syndrome, Andre Spicer and Carl Cederström point to the growing industry of “funsultants” offering advice on how to make workforces more positive. Some firms have started to employ chief happiness officers.

And there are numerous academic studies that support the view that happier employees are more productive.

For example, research by the Social Market Foundation and the Warwick University’s Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy (CAGE) makes interesting reading.

The report’s author, Dr. Sgroi explains: “Having scientific support for generating happiness-productivity cycles within the workforce should … help managers to justify work-practices aimed at boosting happiness on productivity grounds.” Happy workers are 12-15% more productive he suggests.

As the UK falls further behind other countries in international productivity tables could this be a solution to the Chancellor’s prayers?

Well, as ever, a note of caution needs to be introduced. It is interesting for example that a report a decade earlier from another part of the same university – the Operations Management Group, Warwick Business School – claimed that “study of one of the UK’s four large supermarket chains reveals an inverse correlation between employee satisfaction and the measures of productivity, efficiency and profitability, the most profitable stores being those in which employees are least satisfied”.

Less counter-intuitively, as Andre Spicer writes: “Wanting to be happy at work is fair enough. But being forced to be happy at work can be troubling.”

He suggests simple solutions – allowing employees to work at home, stop interrupting workers with pointless demands, and in particular removing some of the “endemic uncertainty” that is built into many workplaces.

We found that many – organisational restructuring and change initiatives achieve very little apart from making employees miserable, building the reputations of a few managers, and fattening the coffers of consultants”.

Anyone who has gone through their third change initiative at work is likely to breathe a sigh of agreement.

While research by the Guardian points to even more straight forward solutions.

Being valued and good team relationships count just as highly as salary – which in straightened economic times might be cheaper and easier for employers to implement.

And it has given us one valuable perspective on how organisations can address the issue of bullying in the workplace. By focusing on staff value and by supporting team relationships, the outcomes can be thoroughly beneficial.