Never discount the value of happiness as a measure of progress

The recent unveiling of the UAE’s new Happiness Ministry has attracted headlines around the world. This has been accompanied by some considerable praise for the country’s forthright approach to place happiness as a central measure of progress, while also being met with a degree of cynicism from other quarters.

Their issue, I would suggest, is not with the concept itself – after all, it’s hard to argue against the idea that any government department or indeed private business should be concerned with the happiness of the people it is responsiblefor. Rather, some people might view the effort as simply being beyond the range of what any organisation is ordinarily concerned with.

Government departments and private companies are traditionally expected to function as comparatively hard-faced, unfeeling entities; populated by people for sure, but operated coldly as a whole. Small, friendly family businesses might be able to be personal, but at the level of government or a big business, the usual expectation is of an approach lacking any discernibly human touch. Results? Yes. Productivity? Sure. Happiness and positivity? Maybe not so much.

Yet to look at signs from the private sector, the UAE could well be ahead of the curve, with a number of major companies already appointing chief happiness officers or other similarly monikered positions. Most famously, Google was an early proponent of this concept – employing Chade-Meng Tan until late last year with the ever-so-slightly-cloying job title of “jolly good fellow. Now a successful motivational speaker, Mr Tan was an early part of a relatively new tradition of employing someone whose stated role is tied up with the happiness and well-being of the organ­isation’s workforce.

These individuals might undertake formal and informal surveys of employee happiness then spearhead efforts to rectify issues that are dampening the experience of their workers. They can look to modify working practices – perhaps with homeworking or more collegiate office spaces. They may simply arrange a swath of employee activities aimed at pulling people together in a friendly and – hopefully – happier environment.

In short, they will do many of the things that any HR professional is expected to think about during their everyday role. The difference really is the statement of intent that comes with explicitly identifying happiness as an area worthy of consideration in its own right.

For many companies, the concept of a workforce’s well-being is knitted together with a great many other considerations, such as compensation decisions, training and development efforts, or discussions on promotion. All of these have a bearing on happiness of course, but individually will only have an impact in a piecemeal fashion.

Happiness, for all its appearance of lightness, can actually be a considerably weighty facet of success in business. People who enjoy their work and enjoy being in their workplace will be more efficient and harder working. There will be an upturn in creativity and problem-solving and a downturn in employee turnover and sick days. Keeping staff happy is, therefore, very much a business interest.

While at a country level there is certainly great merit in foc­using on citizen happiness through a dedicated ministry, for organisations there is arguably as much value in ingraining the focus as a broad business mentality as there is in codifying it in a specific position.

Some people have certainly argued that chief happiness officer positions have not proliferated as much as they might have. Not because of a lack of interest in the subject, but because a better approach is to promote awareness of happiness and engagement across the organisation, rather than vest it in one person.

In either case, cynics should be wary. The UAE may be a pacesetter in establishing a dedicated minster of state for happiness, but there is also real attention being paid to it in many other countries and international organisations. The UN already operates a World Happiness Index and it is as serious a metric as GDP or population growth.

Businesses are also paying the subject increasing regard and banking the benefits, so it really is a naive leader who believes being happy has no place in his or her company.

Ahmad Badr is chief executive of Abu Dhabi University Knowledge Group.

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