Simon Nash: Why I’m not interested in making staff happy

Do employers really care about a happy workforce?

Reward professionals are pretty straightforward people. We like to make salary and bonus decisions on an analytical basis, taking into account market data, labour market trends and the commercial drivers of the business and sector.

When it comes to benefits, too, a similar logic applies. We are looking for return on investment, for effective business outcomes. We like to see more bang for our buck. So when it comes to initiatives such as wellbeing programmes, it takes a lot to impress us.   

Simon Nash

This is what fascinated me recently in a slew of professional journal articles from a variety of diverse academic fields, which operate with quite different methodologies. It seems that the occupational psychologists, who typically operate from a pragmatic, statistical and predictive model, and the neuroscientists, whose modus operandi is more focused on observational measurement, experiment and explanatory models, are coming to the same conclusions. Now that’s good news for science, exciting news for business and challenging stuff for HR and reward professionals.

The findings of positive psychology have been documented for several decades now. In a nutshell, it is the field of psychology that looks at understanding the processes that make for healthy, successful and happy functioning. HR professionals have noted this work with interest, but generally a qualified interest, as organisations are in the business of making a profit, not just making their staff happier about life.

“I’m not interested in happy lawyers,” said the late, great Stanley Berwin, founder of not one, but two high-powered City of London law firms. And, to an extent, he was right. It’s not about making our employees happier, but about creating the conditions under which they deliver significantly superior performance, through deploying greater intelligence, working better with others and drawing on mental reserves of resourcefulness, positivity and focus.

Research tells us that the secret of enhanced performance could be as simple as a few daily practices, such as displaying gratitude to two or three customers or colleagues, or learning to focus one’s attention on the positive rather than the negative.

These practices can be quickly learned and, when added to good nutrition, hydration, exercise and sleep, can make for significant and measurable gains in employee performance. What is more, employees will find what they do more satisfying and fulfilling, and they will be better at it.

And how do employers introduce such a shift in the employment proposition? Well, that’s the next challenge and it is one that will call for a new approach from HR and reward leaders.

Simon Nash is HR director at Carey Olsen