Employees Want Dignity, Not Happiness

Written by
Tanmoy Goswami

Dear People Leader,

What according to you is the single most futile and wasteful idea in the workplace? The one idea that has become wildly popular but has no reason to exist? Here's the idea that gets my vote (and goat): ‘Employee happiness’, sometimes used interchangeably with 'employee engagement'. You know, everything from pre-pandemic beanbags and pool tables, Star of the Month shindigs, and Bring Your Pets to Work Days to post-pandemic yoga on Zoom and meditation apps. Don’t get me wrong — I have nothing against these perks per se. I just don’t think employers should bother with making employees ‘happy’.

For starters, you are doomed to fail when you promise people happiness — a mirage that has frustrated even the world’s greatest philosophers and shrinks.

Business psychologist Thomas Chamorro-Premuzic will remind you that chasing employee happiness is useless because happiness is subjective. It means wildly different things to different people.

Ergo: It is impossible to optimise happiness programmes for your entire workforce.

Then there’s all the data that shows just how shockingly bad the returns are from initiatives meant to create a happier, more engaged workforce:

  • In 2017, US companies spent over a billion dollars in employee engagement — and yet barely a third of their employees were engaged at work. This number has remained flat despite all the desperation to keep employees happy in the wake of the Great Resignation spawned by the pandemic.
  • In a British poll long before the pandemic, 37% of employees said they were stuck in “bullshit jobs” — jobs that made no meaningful contribution to the world — while 13% said they weren’t sure. In the Netherlands, 40% of the respondents believed their jobs had no reason to exist.
  • Meanwhile in India, corporate professionals report distress levels that are among the highest in the world.
  • Globally, burnout — defined as a syndrome caused by unmanaged work-related stress and overwork — led to the deaths of 2.8 million workers before the pandemic. And yet, in a Deloitte survey in the US, as many as 70% of the respondents said their organisation didn’t do enough to prevent burnout.

Sit with those numbers for a minute. Clearly, the employee happiness/engagement project isn't working as intended.

Why did things go so wrong?

Most exercises meant to motivate/energise/delight employees are nothing more than short-lived adrenaline shots, as Jacob Morgan explains in Harvard Business Review:

“A perk is introduced to boost scores, but over time the effect wears off and scores go back down. Another perk is introduced, and scores go back up — and then they fall again. The more this cycle repeats itself, the more it feels like manipulation. People begin to recognise the short-term fixes for what they are.”

This 'manipulation' also gives away a bigger problem with employee happiness schemes: they are ostensibly meant to improve employee wellbeing, but most companies approach them as tools to increase productivity. They ignore the fact that this fixation with productivity is responsible for so much of the distress among workers to begin with.

The Deloitte burnout report makes a telling point: being ‘passionate’ about one’s work does not guarantee immunity from burnout

The report adds that one in four professionals rarely take all of their vacation days, and that the top driver of burnout is lack of support or recognition from leadership, which also blows holes in the current hype around four-day work weeks and mental health leaves.

Finally, our workplaces are often rigged against people who don't fit into regimented, homogenous cultures and policies. Diversity and inclusion initiatives are far too often reduced to an exercise in checking boxes rather than creating a safe and equitable environment for everybody.

Repeat after me: Workplace happiness programmes are often a distraction from the real issues that hurt employees, including overwork, toxic management styles, discrimination and harassment.

If happiness isn't a viable goal, what is?

Dignity.

Employee happiness programmes are band-aid solutions to deep structural problems. Investing in the dignity of your workforce is the only way to commit to the cultural overhaul that workplaces urgently need.

Workplace dignity is defined as an individual's perception about respect and trust, equal and fair treatment, valuation of one's worth, autonomy and freedom of expression and decision making at the workplace.

This might sound like a daunting goal — and it is. Undoing decades of faulty thinking isn't meant to be easy. However, here's some good news. Unlike happiness, which is fickle and subject to far too many variables, dignity at work needs only two ingredients: compassion and unwavering humanity. 

When anyone in a position of power, such as an employer, guarantees you these two things, you invariably end up with dignity.

Five steps to dignity

Each workplace must design its own policies and practices to deliver a dignified work experience. This process cannot be conducted in a silo involving only the top management. It has to be shaped in consultation with your employees, since they are the ultimate experts on the support they need from you.

Here are five building blocks to get you going on this journey, together with questions for you that will help you think through each step in your specific context. 

PS: Some of these recommendations might seem like a radical shift from your usual way of doing business. Don't worry. You can always pick your battles and pace yourself. It's okay to do this slowly, and you don't have to get everything pitch perfect from the get go. Take your employees into confidence, communicate with them transparently, and build trust with them that your intent is authentic. That's more than half the battle won.

1. Focus more on work than on the workplace: In the pre-pandemic world, the physical workplace was at the heart of most (superficial) employee wellbeing initiatives. Today, with the primacy of the workplace ending, we have an opportunity to bring back focus to the actual work people do. As Gallup’s CEO Jim Clifton said presciently

"What companies will inevitably find is that the only way to make a person happy is to give them a job that matches well to their strengths, a boss who cares about their development, and a mission that gives them feelings of purpose. The belief that something gets better when you come and do your job, that’s as happy as you can be."

How do you decide what gives people a feeling of purpose? You don't! You ask your employees and let them tell you. But don’t just ask — act on their feedback too. In the old world, organisations managed via command and control. This paternalistic approach is past its sell-by date. Always ask first — it's a simple manoeuvre with incredibly transformative results.

QUESTIONS FOR YOU: Does your workplace have a ready system of asking employees what makes work meaningful and dignified for them, and then implementing that feedback? If not, what do you need to change to make this happen?

2. Understand intersectionality and implement person-centred policies: Person-centred policies acknowledge that every human being has a complex identity that lies at the intersection of several factors: their gender, sexuality, caste, class, economic background, health conditions, disabilities, etc. The support we need to get to our full potential depends on where we are on this matrix. Person-centered policymaking is thus an antidote to 'one size fits all' HR policies.

One practical way in which companies design person-centred workplaces is by asking employees to share their one-page profiles, where they can list things that are important for them to function well (eg, "I cannot concentrate on long emails. I work best when we have face-to-face/video chats.") Managers should create their one-page profiles too. Team members are then sensitised to each others' needs through open conversations, and leaders are empowered to provide reasonable
accommodations that feel like a right that every employee has and not a favour the workplace is doing them.

When done mindfully, this is a radically new way of supporting people. See this for a sample one-page profile.

QUESTION FOR YOU: What might your own one-page profile look like?

3. Empower caring leaders: According to Clifton of Gallup, corporate bosses can’t handle the 'softer' side of management. Business is all about 'killing your competition', and emotions aren’t good in this brutal battlefield. Clifton adds: "The truth is many CEOs have been repelled by this idea that management must incorporate more heart to be successful. But now many are saying, ‘come a little bit closer, my dear.’ They’re beginning to recognise that an authentically caring culture provides a clear and sustainable competitive advantage."

In the new world, employers will need to be ready for employees demanding to be seen as messy, complex individuals who live messy, complex lives – not as machines who can leave their unproductive or inconvenient parts at home, or stop themselves from bringing up 'awkward' topics at work because doing so is not 'professional'.

To steer workplaces through this change, employers will have to reinvent their learning and development programmes by incorporating training on intersectional thinking. They have to create and empower a cadre of caring leaders. And they have to incentivise and reward kindness as a leadership trait, not dismiss it as a weakness.

QUESTIONS FOR YOU: How would your workplace go about creating spaces and conversations that help surface examples of caring leadership? How could you incorporate caring leadership in your performance appraisal process?

4. Invest in decent digiwork: The pandemic has been a shot in the arm for digital work.  But it has put gig workers attached to the digital economy – such as ride-hailing and food delivery personnel – under enormous strain. With rapid digitalisation and ad hoc hiring replacingthe conventional employer-employee relationship across industries, this strain is only likely to increase and spread wider. In response, future of work expert Maria Mexi calls for a model of 'decent digiwork', characterised
by self-respect and dignity, security and equal opportunity, representation and voice for every worker in the digital economy. 

She proposes a 'digital responsibility by default’ model – an entirely different mindset in society as to the role of governments and the private sector, in ensuring labour standards are updated to respond better to the evolving reality of digital workplaces.

QUESTION FOR YOU: What could you do to ensure a dignified work experience for vendors/partners/freelancers who are part of the digital economy?

5. Outgrow the 'growth at all costs' mindset: By bringing the global economy to a halt, the pandemic taught us that we need to move beyond modern society’s greatest organising principle: our pursuit of growth at all costs.

As economic anthropologist Jason Hickel argues:

"Beyond a certain point, the relationship between GDP and human wellbeing completely breaks down." Hickel gives the example of countries such as Portugal or Finland that have lower per-capita GDP compared to the US — but higher life expectancy, thanks to their investments in universal healthcare. National leaders such as Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand have already promised to abandon GDP growth in favour of wellbeing.

"People are ready for something different," Hickel claims. "The truth is we don’t need more growth to improve people’s lives. We can accomplish our social goals right now, without any growth at all, simply by sharing what we already have more fairly."

What is true of national economies is also true of businesses. Rampant burnout and frequent mass layoffs are just two of the many prominent symptoms of unchecked growthism all around us. I’m only repeating what’s been said over and over in the past two decades by people much wiser than me: to build sustainable businesses, you must stop pushing people to the point of no return. Don’t move fast and break things. Slow down and heal.

That right there is the very essence of the quest for dignity at work.

QUESTION FOR YOU: What could outgrowing growth look like for your business? What would shedding the ‘growth at all costs’ mindset help you do for your people that you can’t do otherwise?

***

Tanmoy Goswami, founding editor, Sanity, India's first independent mental health storytelling platform

All opinions are the author's.

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