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The title was on a postcard someone sent me many years ago. I think it was promoting a film, or maybe an ice-cream. Whatever: it made me smile. Possibly it had a point too, at a philosophical ‘how do we approach our own lives’ sort of level, or perhaps at the level of the only blog post with the same title I could find (which comes from a site with the strapline “The place to get all cute about your cubicle and joyous about your job – if you love your work you’ll like it here!”: I’d prefer my happiness with a little less saccharine.) If we are going to look at happiness at work, let’s ditch the sweeteners and think instead of ‘sufficiently contented and inspired to feel positively engaged and productive’. “Where there’s pink there’s gold” isn’t how the aphorism goes. Where there’s happiness, however …

Randstad recently surveyed 45000 employees in several countries, finding that us Brits are among the least satisfied in Europe and in the English-speaking world. As HRReview reported:

British workers have had the lowest scores in 9 out of the past 13 quarters when compared to European peers including France and Germany – and 9 out of the last 11 quarters when compared to English speaking countries including the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.”

Unless our stereotypical ‘love of a good moan’ is a source of comfort, this is far from promising news. That postcard might also have read slightly differently, if figures from the PwC 15th Annual Global CEO Survey are any guide: perhaps it should have been sent to CEOs and worded “If they’re happy and you know it, that’s unusual”. The survey asked CEOs how adequately they’re informed with regard to six categories of what were classified as performance data. The factor were most said the data was ‘comprehensive’ was “Labour Costs” (41%).  51% replied “adequate but would like more” in relation to “Employees’ views and needs”, while 14% opted for “Inadequate”. Given those two figures, the fact that only 12% felt that had comprehensive data on ROI on human capital isn’t surprising, but a lack of surprise isn’t necessarily a good thing.

In the Talent Management supplement with yesterday’s edition of The Times, Tim Smedley also highlighted that even ‘data’ can have a slippery connection with reality (a finding PwC highlight when they reveal that “82% of business leaders don’t trust talent data”). Discretionary effort may be an output of fear rather than happiness at work:

Employee engagement, measured as discretionary effort and intention to stay in the company, is the highest it’s been in five years, according to leading member-based advisory company CEB. Record numbers of employees are volunteering for extra roles and responsibilities at work. Yet this is largely to protect their jobs, rather than feeling more engaged with the company. In fact, 60 per cent of highly engaged employees report they are now less engaged and that they work they do is not aligned with company goals.”

Sometimes, however, the figures alone are worth repeating – and the skills of drawing conclusions and highlighting underlying issues from metrical data are, after all, attributes of effective CEOs. So, in the interests of fluff-dispersal, some more findings:

  • As many as 10 million people are professionally unfulfilled in the UK [Ranstad]
  • Only 17% of us are ‘very fulfilled’ [Randstad]
  • Fulfilment [..] diminishes during the middle of people’s careers – the lowest proportion of those who feel fulfilled at work was among those aged 35 to 44 at 57% [Randstad]
  • High staff turnover in an organisation makes it more likely that employees will feel dissatisfied with their job [Journal of Applied Psychology]
  • Poor levels of job satisfaction and professional fulfilment drive up absenteeism affecting the bottom line […] with average costs of absence estimated to be £975 per employee per year [Randstad]
  • £25.8bn = predicted increase in GDP in the UK improves engagement levels to match middle-to-top performing countries, such as the Netherlands [Engage for Success]
  • 94% of the world’s top companies believe their efforts to engage employees have created a competitive advantage [Hay Group]
  • 85% of HR leaders have not used information gleaned from data analytics to change a business decision in the past year {PwC]
  • 19% of CEOs receive inadequate or no information on the costs of employee turnover [PwC]
  • Only 24% of HR professionals feel they have an understanding of the potential of their workforce, and only 44% use objective data to make decisions around the talent agenda: 75% of staff decisions are still being made based on gut feeling and instinct [CEB]
  • 75% of people identified as potential successors do not perceive significant opportunity for career progression [CEB]

As a man involved in the launch of Randstad’s How I Became project, aimed to increase fulfilment at work and which will draw on their research findings, Alain de Botton was quoted as saying:

“On Sunday evening your aspirations and reality collide. Take that moment seriously.”

We’ve cited de Botton’s takes on work, happiness and expectation before, not least when he cited the Stoic school of philosophy as a means of secular guidance. (Perhaps we should summarise it as “bear it and grin”? – a politer response that his recent tweets about the power of Sunday evenings have received.) But it’s worth remembering his comments in a Management Today article where, having acknowledged the rise of tasks such as brain surgery have meant that the mental wellbeing of the practitioner needed to taken seriously, he attempted to recalibrate our post-2008 expectations of the workplace:

“So one of the benefits of the crisis is that it enables us to lower our expectations as to what work can deliver. Some of the greater existential questions disappear. Simply holding down an ordinary job and surviving comes to seem like reward enough. We should perhaps temper our sadness in these troubled times by remembering that work is often more bearable when we don’t expect it always to deliver happiness in addition to money.”

But those of us who will spend Monday morning as CEOs, data analysts or HR advisors might want to spend Sunday evening reflecting that the exact nature of this collision between other’s people’s aspirations and realities lies within their power to influence. We’re not in favour of upsetting work-life balance, but we hope that everyone spends their Sunday evenings wisely.