Happiness and Productivity

Are happy workers more productive or are more productive workers happier?

This is a question that has exercised work and organisational psychologists for over 50 years. And there have been mixed results from workplace interventions. For example in Sweden – with a highly educated workforce doing repetitive work in the car industry – increasing job satisfaction reduced absenteeism but didn’t increase productivity.

Now economists at Warwick University think they have the answer. The Sunday Times article; “Why happy people are the hardest workers” (11 July 2010) reported Professor Andrew Oswald as saying; “… human happiness has large and positive causal effects on productivity. Positive emotions appear to invigorate human beings while negative emotions have the opposite effect”. (This is straight from the positive psychology handbook of course and as a psychologist I wonder why they didn’t just ask one of us).

The research team carried out a range of experiments and showed their subjects either a comedy film or a boring (placebo) film. The subjects who reported higher happiness levels after seeing the comedy film were 12% more productive whereas unhappy workers were 10% less productive.

However those subjects who watched the comedy film but did not report increased happiness were not more productive. So the increase in productivity was linked to an increase in happiness but not to just watching a comedy film.

A surprise finding was that those subjects who had experienced a death in the family in the last two years were 10% less productive. But subjects whose parents had divorced recently didn’t appear less happy or less productive. Perhaps with divorce being so common it’s  no longer seen as a negative life event.

They conclude that if happiness does bring increased productivity then HR departments and business managers should be paying more attention to the influence of emotions at work.

This is interesting but there are lots of questions. Some companies have tried to inject fun into work, for example call centres (often the modern equivalent of Victorian sweat shops) but I haven’t seen any evidence it does anything than temporarily alleviate boredom.

The fact that some subjects didn’t report increased happiness after seeing the film might be because they didn’t think the film was funny (it featured a well-known British comedian for a start) and humour is very subjective.

The subjects’ personality as measured by the Big 5 might have been a factor. Extraverts tend to be happier and more positive than Introverts and also respond better to incentives (the subjects were paid an attendance fee plus a performance fee depending on their output).

It also appears that the subjects were working individually rather than in teams. This reduces the element of “social loafing” and usually maximises the incentive effect but there is a strong social effect when working with friends or in teams, especially for more sociable types.

Anything that improves employee engagement (at an all-time low at the moment) is of interest to business leaders but I can’t help thinking that the more holistic approach adopted by companies like Sony Film is worth looking into. See “Rituals engage staff”.

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