Too happy to eat? I don't think so

Happiness at work is not a new phenomenon: the Romans reckoned that happier slaves worked harder. Yet fast forward to the twenty-first century and employers still seem to be missing the point.

desk1Word came last week from jobs portal Profession.hu that some 40% of Hungarian office workers don’t take a lunch break. Given that food provides energy, one has to wonder how much their performance is suffering. Of the 2400 people surveyed, just 6% took the time to eat lunch at a canteen or restaurant; the others who indulged brought their lunch from home and many ate sitting in front of their computers.

desk2I know that some might say I’m equating eating/taking a break with happiness and productivity, but it does contribute. This might not be an indication of working conditions and pressure; eating in the company of a computer could be a result of the virtual togetherness that so often translates into real-time aloneness brought on by social media. But surely, consistently working through lunch cannot be thought of as good practice? Were I queen of the working world, I’d mandate lunchtimes and frequent breaks. I’m all for happier workers.

Welsh social reformer, Robert Owen, was one of those behind utopian socialism and the cooperative movement. Working in the early 1800s, he gave employees in the Scottish village of New Lanark, jobs, housing, clothing, and education. And no doubt they had scheduled meal-times, too.

A century later, George Pullman, an American industrialist, created a town for 12 000 people employed to build his railway cars. He charged ridiculously high rents, added 250% to their water costs and 650% to their gas bills. And when the economy slumped, he cut wages.

I wonder which lot were the most productive?

Then came Frederick Winslow Taylor, with his time-and-motion studies, designed to rid the industrial world of ‘soldiering’ – the practice of looking busy to avoid being given more work when penalised for overproduction. His aim was to break down jobs into their constitute elements and then measure the time it took to do each task. Henry Ford cottoned on and industrial employees turned into automatons.

Hope for an alternative was briefly revived in the early 1900s with Walter Dill Scott writing about the importance of loyalty and the idea that it actually mattered to workers what they did. Later that century Abraham Maslow concluded that workers preferred meaningful to meaningless work. Not hard to believe. But then technology took over and employees began to be seen as costs rather than assets.

So here we are today, where top employees are paid more to stay. Benefits are better, bonuses are bigger, and many are chained in golden handcuffs, tied to their paycheques. Employees are once again being spoken about as assets, but does anyone really care?

London-based Happiness Works does. It has developed a happiness at work survey that gives immediate feedback. It doesn’t ask you how you’re doing and then forget to get back to you about the results (if I had a 1000 huf for every one of those surveys I’d taken, I could buy everyone lunch).  It gives you data, based on your answers to thoroughly researched questions, just moments after you complete it. It challenges you to look at what is going well and to work on those strengths, and to look at what is not going well and to ask yourself how can you begin to make a difference.

How happy are you at work? So happy that you’re in what Mihaly Csikszentmihaly calls ‘the flow’ and forget to take your lunch-break? Every day? Every week? All year? I doubt it.

First published in the Budapest Times 25 April 2014

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