In pursuit of happiness

This post first appeared in DNA India on 26th January, 2017.

A recent Forbes article spoke about the distaste for the term ‘employee happiness’ among HR consultants. They typically prefer the term ‘employee engagement’. The reason behind this preference is that happiness is typically defined by its hedonistic nature, driven by an individual’s personal pleasures. Hence, even a lazy, underworked employee could be happy, but would he be truly engaged? Does measuring his sense of happiness tell the organisation anything about how he would perform?

However, there is a second definition of happiness that is termed as “eudaimonic” which focuses on meaning and self-realisation and defines happiness in terms of the meaning that individuals derive out of their lives due to what they can achieve. A smaller minority in the consulting world apply this definition of happiness and propound the philosophy that employee happiness, as Jeff DeWolf expressed, is the ‘oil in the gears of performance’. Given, these two differing views on employee engagement, where does the answer lie? As always in situations such as this, it lies somewhere in the middle. While giving employees free food or a gym at work could lead to satisfying their hedonistic needs, their eudaimonic side of happiness can be satisfied only by providing them with an environment for carrying out meaningful work. Research has shown that when pursuing personal goals, feeling happy may be disconnected from finding meaning in their work. Thus, rather than focusing on the commonalities between these two definitions, organisations must look to identify employee happiness across both these dimensions.

What can then organisations do to understand what their employees truly want? Should they pursue the satisfaction of the hedonistic or eudaimonic sides of happiness? If they need to satisfy both, how can they do it? The answer to these lies in a couple of areas: a) identifying employee experience on an ongoing basis and truly understanding the issues employees face in their day-to-day working environment. As I have argued earlier, the periodic, once in a blue-moon engagement surveys, are passé in this day and age and are postmortems that provide information about what happened, but much after the fact. In contrast, feedback systems enable managers and organisations to have fingers on the pulse of their employees and quickly identify hotspots of trouble or discontent as they arise. b) querying employees on not just their needs from a hedonistic perspective, but also understanding what makes employees tick? What enables them to be satisfied at work? The questions that organisations pose to employees and the feedback that they try to elicit must take both these aspects of happiness into account.

In summary, while employee engagement might be a term that is currently in favor, organisations would do well to focus on both the aspects that lead to the overall happiness as an employee.