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Workplace Trends: Feng shui? Phooey!

Happy workers
Happy employees: now get back to work
26 October 2012

When is too much happiness at work bad for your organisation?


When the photocopier is on the blink again and there’s no one there to help you. But the company can provide you with a great massage if you need it.


At this point, a company should take a hard look at its priorities, said Paul Morrell, the government’s chief construction advisor.

Morrell, also a former senior partner at Davis Langdon who was speaking at The 10th annual Workplace Trends conference, held at the offices of law firm Allen & Overy.

The conference had the theme of ‘wellbeing and performance’. And putting aside the humour – and there was a lot of it – the ‘after lunch debate’ was a serious look at where employee wellbeing fits in to an organisation’s efforts to get the best out of the workforce.

Consider the motion: “The current focus on controlling costs and maximising profitability is misguided; we should be designing and managing for staff wellbeing”.

Sooner or later, the help you give to your employees becomes a hostage situation, said Morrell who was pitted against Neil Usher, general manager of global property for mining giant Rio Tinto.

Morrell, speaking against the motion, admitted he is naturally a suspicious person, and is suspicious of too much happiness at work. He set the tone of his tongue-in-cheek presentation with, “my name is Paul Morrell and I don’t care if you’re well.”

He said he is not against happiness at work, “but it’s just not British, it’s too American, and I feel scented candles and yet more consultants coming on” when it’s mentioned.

Taking too much care of your employees will not get you anywhere, he argued, pointing to the track record of financially troubled global investment bank Goldman Sachs. He pointed out that the company at one time noted that the mental health of its employees was probably one its biggest concerns.

“Don’t forget, you are in business and you’re supposed to make a profit. The Good Samaritan had to have the money in the first place to pay the innkeeper,” to take in the wounded and abandoned traveller, he said.

Wellbeing, or happiness at work, is fine if the organisation has the money to pay for it. Too much happiness can pull down the work ethic, he claimed. Has anyone told the Chinese about the happiness-at-work trend?, he asked. “While we’re making employees happy, the Chinese are busy working.”

However, Morrell softened the blow of his message somewhat: “I’m not saying wellbeing is for wimps.” He allowed that businesses needed to make their employees “comfortable”, to make their working life easier. It would help employees to be more productive and efficient.

Usher, speaking for the motion, told delegates that workers since time immemorial have always wanted only to have their wellbeing taken into consideration. His 10-minute cleverly rhyming humorous eulogy to work, from prehistory to modern times, often repeated the phrase, “We’ll give you what you want, if you only keep us well.”

This has been a constant, from when the human race was hunter-gatherers to now as salaried employees working in skyscrapers. Both periods have their pitfalls for ‘employees’ who only ask for some basic essentials at the end of the day to make life easier.

Usher also said he is careful not to use the word “happiness”. He prefers “wellbeing” because it is more fundamental than happiness. For that reason he said he is “cautious about heaping happiness and wellbeing into the same bucket”.

To this end, employers should be “sympathetic” to the needs of its employees, but not necessarily go overboard.

For a brief moment, Usher stepped out of his professional FM role. It may seem heresy, he pointed out, but the physical characteristics of the workplace affect the wellbeing of employees less than their organisation’s management culture.

That is not to diminish the impact of the office, nor the efforts of facilities managers and other senior staff to make the environment better. But employee wellbeing sometimes comes down to how well managers manage. Remember, he said, the office is simply a physical structure. It’s the human behaviour, the work culture, that goes on inside an office that most often determines people’s attitudes to their work, their colleagues and their environment.

The debate started with a show of hands that indicated delegates were around two-thirds in favour of the resolution. But the final show of hands put a wider smile on Morrell’s face. It was either his argument, or sense of humour, that appeared to have won him more votes.

It was a close-run thing and this correspondent isn’t quite sure who won the day. Nonetheless, the delegates seemed happy.