The pursuit of happiness versus long-term wellbeing

The pursuit of happiness versus long-term wellbeing

by Emily Plummer

Forty per cent of UK organisations have a standalone wellbeing strategy. But mental health problems are a growing public concern, so is the focus on ‘happiness’ to blame?

It was announced in January that the Government will be launching a review of mental health practices in the workplace.

A report by the ONS (Office of National Statistics) cited that mental health problems, including depression, anxiety and stress are the leading reasons for workplace absence, after minor ailments.

At Benefex we’ve been talking to the industry about the importance of wellbeing in the workplace for a long time. During a recent client forum, we held workshops which asked clients which initiatives they were running. With physical wellbeing (gym membership etc.) now a foregone conclusion, the discussions focused predominantly on mental and financial wellbeing. This is a real turning point, as you cannot achieve true wellbeing in a holistic sense without each element supporting the other.

There is still a stigma attached to mental health, particularly in the workplace. With an ‘always on’ culture, and a society which craves instant gratification, it’s easy to understand why people are putting themselves under unnecessary pressure to keep up with unrealistic demands, and suffering as a result. Younger members of the workforce are particularly affected by this.

I can’t help but think we’re looking at the wrong end of the ‘happiness’ scale…

The psychology of wellbeing
The psychology of wellbeing has been around for a considerable length of time, with much scientific research going in to the areas of physical, mental and financial. Our traditional perceptions of these areas have been founded on two philosophical theories:

Eudaimonia (In Greek eu=good, daimonia-spirit)
A concept originally derived from Aristotle. It is described as the “highest human good” and it’s linked to virtue, excellence, and character. In fact, its closest translation is “human flourishing”.

Focused on things which are perceived as fun and enjoyable. In a work context, this might be the perceived superficial things like light-touch frivolous initiatives; things which don’t deliver any long-term improvement to the business, but do generate a short-lived buzz around the office.

Essentially, the hedonistic viewpoint is that wellbeing is derived externally via initiatives which generate short-term gratification, or an engagement “bandage”. Whereas eudaimonia takes a longer-term view that true happiness comes from within; where you feel like you’re working towards a greater good, which will encompass peaks and troughs of emotion.

The problem with happiness
The problem is that happiness is a very fluid thing to try and define, and it’s very short-lived. If we spend our lives in the pursuit of it, you miss the opportunity to appreciate the experience along the way. And once you start on that pathway, you become embroiled with a desire for your next ‘hit’ of dopamine. As an employer, if you don’t deliver that, you end up quite quickly with a disengaged workforce.

This is called hedonic adaptation. Take lottery winners: they reach a euphoric state shortly after their win. But once the initial emotion has subsided, within 18 months they have returned to their baseline emotional state. As human beings, we need more from life than just material gains. We need a sense of purpose, towards a greater good, a journey of collective experiences which add up to an overall picture of good mental wellbeing.

So, as a business, what can you do to embed a balanced eudemonic programme which is underpinned by considered strategy, rather than an erratic landscape of quick fixes which never truly look at the root cause?

Change is coming
The media has started to pick up on an overwhelming need for businesses to address the issue of mental wellbeing. Take the recent case of an employee at Olark Live Chat, whose out-of-office message stated that she needed to take some time out for the sake of her mental health. She was subsequently acknowledged by the CEO as a hero for being so open about putting prevention first.

In France, they feel so strongly about the right to disconnect, that it’s now law to not have to answer emails outside of working hours. And whilst it’s unlikely to move across the Channel, it is something which is generating much discussion.

Positive psychology has a major part to play in finding a solution, but how do you make wellbeing not only accessible to everyone in your organisation, but part of their everyday life?

Why it has to be more than the ‘H’ word
As the first employee experience platform, part of Benefex’s repositioning has been to educate our colleagues and peers on what exactly ‘employee experience’ is. Benefex has always been focused on the end user and how they feel throughout their journey with our platform. But we’ve seen a huge increase in the amount of noise in the market focusing on the ‘H’ word. If we focus on employees being happy, they are by default engaged, and as an employer we’ve done our bit? I’m afraid I must disagree.

If everyone is deliriously happy, all the time, it would be as though we’re immersed in a Stepford Wives-esque dystopia, and secondly, I think you’re kidding yourself.

Think about the times when you have been most engrossed in what you’re doing, and think about whether you felt genuine happiness, or whether you felt a blend of emotions; fear, excitement, pride, possibly a bit of stress and anxiety? I’m not sure that happiness comes until after the task has been completed and you move in to a sense of achievement, a sense of relief and perhaps gratitude, acknowledgement and celebration from those around you. But by pinning your hopes of business productivity on a metric of ‘happiness’ for your employees, you’re essentially chasing a pipe dream.

Take the latest PR fiasco at Sports Direct, where employees are invited to hit an emoji button when they clock out. These buttons read their fingerprints. If they select the sad face, they are then identified, and hauled into a meeting with their manager to discuss why. How do they think this makes those employees feel?

I think it’s safe to say that, from an engagement point of view, employees will start to just hit the happy face for fear of being interrogated and asked to justify why they hit the sad face. I highly doubt the root cause will ever be identified in such a draconian programme, and those who feel genuinely miserable will leave. Or worse they will stay and let everyone regularly know they are unhappy, which is no good for anyone; your brand, your customers, or your employees.

The PERMA model
There’s a fascinating psychological model by Martin Seligman called the PERMA model. He believes there are five core elements of psychological wellbeing and happiness. And he believes these five elements are essentially the formula to a sense of meaning or purpose. They are broken down as follows:

P – Positive emotion ‘feeling good’
E – Engagement ‘finding flow’
R – Relationships ‘authentic connections’
M – Meaning ‘purposeful existence’
A – Achievement – a sense of accomplishment

Positive emotion is naturally closely linked to happiness, but it’s more than just putting on a smile and appearing cheerful. It’s being able to demonstrate optimism for the past, present and future, and being able to reflect and draw lessons from it. From an HR perspective, this is an ongoing part of an individual’s experience within your organisation.

In a work context, the starting point can be your mission statement, ensuring your employees have belief in where you are headed as a business, and understand the part they play in delivering that.

Engagement is, of course, the Holy Grail of HR, but it is very much an outcome of an exceptionally well-considered journey of experience for the employee. This is described as ‘flow’; when you’re so engrossed in what you’re doing, loving what you do, and not clock-watching.

Employees are more likely to get to this point if unnecessary distractions are kept to a minimum; like being overwhelmed by multiple HR systems.

Relationships are central to our very existence as human beings. We crave interactions, but they need to be authentic. We can all recall conversations with managers who just never really bothered to get to know us as an individual, or times we didn’t buy in to the culture of an organisation because it didn’t fit with what we thought the company was about. A recent Benefex survey showed that 85% of respondents ranked ‘Meeting my new team’ as the number one priority before joining a new company; people crave connectivity.

Relationships outside of work can also be protected with things like peace-of-mind insurance offerings, and fostered with things like technology or travel benefits.

Meaning is the sense of belonging to something and having the ability to make a difference to a greater vision.

Achievement, is the sense of accomplishment for a job well done. In practical work terms, this could be having a clear set OKRs which allow an individual to develop, and keep track of past successes and challenges. This could be verified by third party recognition from a manager or colleague.

More than just candy floss
Yes, employees will love the fact that you’re hosting a Christmas party or giving them a free advent calendar; but in the long term it won’t necessarily solve your strategic objectives or provide real solutions to your employees’ problems. You won’t drive engagement if you don’t build a solid foundation.

These types of initiatives are one element of a blend of interactions which, combined, are part of a much bigger holistic landscape. They need to be purposefully considered in a way which provides variety, personalisation, and real benefits to the individual.

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In the future will we see a Glassdoor-style rating for wellbeing, in the same way we have started to see gender pay publicly displayed. So, how can we do more to build solid foundations to support our employees, build on their workplace experience, and if needed, demonstrate this to a wider audience?

If you’d like more information on what types of wellbeing benefits are out there, but don’t know where to begin; we can help.