Are Employers Responsible for Employee Happiness?

When an employer expresses a desire for your happiness, should you be suspicious? A recent article in New York Magazine by David Marchese features a Q&A with William Davies, the author of The Happiness Industry, and makes the point that when companies do things ostensibly to make employees’ lives better, we should be concerned. It may be that those “happiness” measures are just masked strategies for not actually changing anything troublesome about workplace culture; rather than fix the aspects of the company’s culture or workflow that are causing employees pain, the company just offers ways of coping with it.

Here’s an example from one of the companies I previously worked for: One of my friends had so much work to do in her associate editor’s position that she sometimes stayed at the office until midnight during the week, and even came into the office on the weekends. Instead of addressing and fixing the workflow challenges that tortured her, the department head told her not to worry because the company would try to provide her with a laptop so she could work whenever she wanted from home. It was a nice gesture to at least want her to be able to work in the comfort of her own home, but the department head missed the real issue: that no low-level or mid-level (or maybe any employee) should be consistently staying hours late at the office every day and coming in on the weekends. The real solution wasn’t to drag the work home with her; the real kindness would have been to review her magazine’s workflow with her boss, and come up with strategies for more evenly distributing assignments and planning for deadlines farther in advance, and in a more organized fashion.

The larger question for me is whether an employer is ever responsible for an employee’s happiness. I would argue that they are not. Their only responsibility is to provide a fair and efficient workplace in which employees are given manageable workloads and deadlines, and fair compensation with rewards for successes. The push to enhance employee lives with perks such as in-office gyms and recreational items such as ping-pong tables and pinball machines is just a way to make up for—rather than solve—overworking employees. Why should you be spending so much time at the office that you need to work out during your lunch hour or during any spare hour you can find during the day? Or why should you need elaborate bars with free food (like I’ve heard Google has)? You’ll be working so hard that you won’t be able to leave the office for an hour to take a walk and get a sandwich at a diner? I’ve heard that Google, which is famous for offering unbelievable in-office “luxuries,” does so not so much to be nice or make employees happy, but to get them to work incredibly long hours at the office. The company is applauded for creating such a great work environment, but is it really all that great? Wouldn’t it be better to offer a reasonable work schedule and the ability to come and go during standard daylight/early evening hours—and without taking work home?

I wrote in an earlier blog about how peculiar I found it when, before being issued a laptop, my employer let me know that I now was mandated to take it home with me every night. I thought at first it was for security purposes, but in a corporate-wide memo, I was informed that it was so we would always have our computer with us in case an “emergency” arose. None of us are in life-and-death-saving positions at my company, so I’m not sure what would happen if we were left for one day without our work computer. We presumably could still log into our Web-based e-mail inbox, and use our home computer to do other work, as well. The real rationale behind this mandate isn’t to ensure our operations continue regardless of the emergency; it’s to make it more likely we do work from home after spending a full day at the office doing work. The person in charge of making the decision to issue employees laptops must have seen research somewhere that employees who are required to take their laptops home every night usually end up continuing their work after they get home.

Are the measures you take to “help” employees be “happier” just a way to get them to accept an unreasonable workload and schedule, rather than finding a solution and making improvements? Or does your organization try to get to the heart of work and schedule challenges?