Should You Wire Employees for Happiness Measurement?

Sixteen summers ago, I had an ill-fated internship at a company that published two magazines—one for high school students aspiring to leadership positions, and another for college student leaders. I was asked to keep a journal on my experience.

I was micro-managed, asked to write outlines for each article before I could begin working on it, and found the phone calls to sources—most of whom I couldn’t reach—tedious. I had written articles before with sources I needed to call repeatedly and patiently interview over the phone, but this time it really depressed me. I didn’t relate to my sources or to my readers, and I was still young and idealistic enough at the time that the disconnection was demoralizing. I would fall asleep in my car during lunch in the nearby Burger King parking lot.

I decided to be honest and write these feelings down in my journal. I didn’t think anyone would read the journal anyway, and if they did, I didn’t think they would be interested. It turned out they were very interested. I was called into the office with all the editors (hardly older than myself and most likely barely paid), who all looked at me with concerned, earnest faces. They told me they were worried after reading my journal, and said they didn’t want me to stay there for the summer if I would be miserable. I replied with complete sincerity: “Well, I’ve been miserable my whole life, so that wouldn’t be anything new. I wouldn’t worry about it.”

The editors couldn’t live with my misery, so I told them I would leave. I told them that all I really wanted to do was be a creative writer, and wouldn’t be happy in any job anyway, but that I realized I needed to earn a living. The managing editor suggested I become a bookkeeper.

I ended up becoming a journalist and editor for trade publications like this one, and even for a travel magazine that has taken me around the world, so I didn’t have to become a bookkeeper (at least not yet). But the rest of that summer I worked as a kind of unarmed security guard at an art museum on campus, where I clicked a little clicker to keep count of people coming into the museum while I read books. It wasn’t a professional position, but my happiness-odometer went up from where it was at the magazine company.

That’s a long story to illustrate how employee happiness was measured in the old days. You could ask employees to keep a journal and speak to them face-to-face about their misery, or you could simply observe their miserable faces slumped toward their desks, spaced out instead of concentrating on their computer screens.

Today, there are electronic sensors you can affix to your employees. It reminds me of the kind of electrodes doctors place on a patient’s body to measure heart rhythm, or the ones they place on the patient’s head to measure brain waves. Apparently, you can measure happiness in a similar way, according to an article in Quartz by Stuart Frankel. “Beyond surveys, employers now are beginning to use technological methods to gauge employee well-being. Consider Hitachi, whose employees wear happiness-measuring sensors that are housed in badges. The sensor collects data on employee movements 50 times a second throughout the day, including employee time spent sitting, walking, nodding, typing, and talking. Using these metrics, Hitachi has invented an algorithm that measures happiness; they’ve dubbed the whole system Human Big Data,” Frankel writes.

It’s interesting to me that research has linked an algorithm of head movements and diversity of tasks to happiness. It’s true that monotony is stereotypically linked to unhappiness, but that’s not always the case. I have one unimaginative, kind, but boring, friend, who speaks in a monotone (as does her husband), who likely has no problem with monotony. She probably prefers it. It gives her the dull predictability she seems to feed on. Doing the same task all day generally depresses me, but, on the other hand, it also allows me to space out happily while listening to music. Can employee happiness be reduced to an algorithm?

And if it can, will the “measurements” taken by the sensors be used for the purpose of working to make employees happier, or could these measurements be used for just the opposite purpose—to micromanage more effectively and to penalize? What if you find that one seemingly happy employee has spent the majority of her day walking and talking instead of sitting and typing? Is that a red flag that there’s an intelligent slacker in your midst who’s been getting away with doing little work compared to her peers?

You also wouldn’t want automated tracking to take the place of face-to-face interviews with employees about job satisfaction. One thing I’m beginning to wonder about is why there are performance evaluations, but no happiness evaluations—separate from performance evaluations—in which you sit down with your manager, or, better yet, your boss’ boss, and explain how and why you’re happy or unhappy, or ambivalent about your take-it-or-leave-it job. At their best, some would say, performance reviews should include a portion that gauges employee job satisfaction. But I think a separate happiness evaluation would be useful.

I have a wealth of information to give my boss’ boss about the happiness deficit I’ve been experiencing, and why I mostly blame his subordinate, my boss (rather than myself). That sounds suspiciously whiny and self-pitying, but I, nevertheless, have these observations to share, which whiny and self-pitying or not, might be of use to the company.

What do you think of the idea of affixing happiness sensors to your employees? What are some other, more low-tech, less intrusive (and less costly) ways to gauge the job satisfaction of your employees?


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