Wellness programs, free lunches, employee yoga. There's lots of ways companies try to create a sense of happiness and well-being for employees. In fact, many companies have large teams dedicated to it and spend millions of dollars to make sure their employees are happy. But what if forcing employees into being happy is actually hurting their performance and overall mental health?

That's the argument made by psychologist William Davies in his book, "The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being." Davies says companies should be careful in how they are investing money in their employees and creating a false idea of one-size-fits-all happiness. The idea of optimism is incredibly pervasive in the workplace--the idea that employees can have it all and that they should be happy for the opportunities they have, but employees who don't feel that way or who don't like being told to feel that way can withdraw from their work and becoming apathetic.

There's no doubt that being happy at work is a good thing. However, one person could define happiness in a totally different way than someone else. For one employee, happiness could be all those things the company is investing in--the wellness programs, the open office, the flexible schedule--but for someone else, happiness could be working on a project at their own pace and making it home for dinner every night. On the outside, the first employee might seem "happier" and "more engaged," and the second employee could look like he needs some help and needs to become a project, when both employees are actually happy in their own way.

The root of our modern-day happiness epidemic started in the 1980s, when stress and anxiety started to grow in employees, creating major morale and productivity problems for managers and HR leaders. The chronic problems can be incredibly costly to companies, and so the push towards happiness and engagement was born. Companies started forcing employees to smile at work and put on a facade of positivity and happiness. However, many companies started looking at the overall levels of happiness as defined by an obscure happiness index instead of considering the needs of each individual employee.

That's not to say that companies shouldn't work towards an engaged workforce. In fact, some experts estimate that the U.S. economy as a whole loses half a trillion dollars a year due to lack of employee engagement. There are multiple studies showing that engaged employees are more productive and lead to more successful projects and companies. It's no secret that a large percentage of employees could be more engaged. However, the danger comes in forcing employees to be engaged and fit a certain mold of happiness and oversimplifying the problem by saying that if employees just smiled more or got more exercise they would be more engaged. Too many companies try to put a bandaid over the problem instead of reaching out to individual employees and meeting their needs. If an employee really is disengaged at work, providing free lunch isn't going to solve the problem. The real solution likely comes from sitting down with that employee to create an open dialogue about responsibilities and work expectations to make sure the employee feels she has the tools to be successful and fulfilled in her job.

What does this all mean for organizations? That it might be time to start rethinking how we prioritize happiness. Instead of using it as a blanket word that applies to only a certain type of employee, organizations should look for different ways to identify happiness and engagement in a way that reaches out to the individual employee and embraces their personality. Happiness at work should be a choice and not something that is force fed. Adopting that mindset can lead to a more engaged and successful workplace.

Published on: May 5, 2017