As usual I pulled the programme together for this year’s Workplace Trends conference. The theme
for this year, the tenth annual conference, was wellbeing and Performance. I
selected this theme simply because during the last year of attending conferences
the subject of wellbeing was raised, but not really discussed, by the audiences
and a few speakers. I was intrigued, is wellbeing genuinely a different issue to
performance, or is Wellbeing simply a rebranding of the whole productivity


Not only are wellbeing, performance and productivity mentioned
in the same breath but we can also add happiness, satisfaction and motivation
into the mix. Nic Marks opened Workplace Trends presenting his happiness index.
Nic presented research which revealed that positive emotions both a) broaden
our thoughts helping us to pay more attention and be more creative and b) build
psychological resources such as resilience/coping mechanisms and social skills.
Both are useful attributes in the workplace and clearly happiness is a positive
emotion but the link to performance is only implied and a direct causal link is
not demonstrated by the research.

So does happiness lead to better performance or better
performance lead to happiness? Well according to a Gallup survey presented by
Nic, the impact of happiness
at work on business performance is twice as large as from business performance
to happiness at work. Tim Whitely, an old friend of mine at Arup, found during
his PhD in the 1990s that job satisfaction and individual performance are
related but interdependent on each other. From my perspective I can see how a
successful business will lead to better rewarded, contented and high performing
staff and I can also see how highly motivated and performing staff leads to better

But, as
Paul Morrell pointed out in the afternoon, we are British and we are naturally suspicious
of happiness, especially at work. I think our fear is of being that happy
person in the office, the one who is unaware of office politics, the one who is
the last to know when the company is struggling and the one who is usually the
most vulnerable to organisational restructuring. The more cynical amongst us might
even associate happiness with (blissful) ignorance, being ill-informed or, dare
I say, a lack of intelligence. Or perhaps happiness is too high an emotional state
that can lead to distraction from work duties. For example, maybe “happiness” is too
close an emotion (or word) to “love” and Nic even reworded Tina Turner’s song
as “what’s love/happiness got to do with it”. But I also subscribe to the
“a happy worker is a productive worker” camp. So, I propose replacing “happiness”
with “satisfaction” (or even “motivation”) to make Nic’s underlying message
more acceptable to the dour British business.


In the second presentation, Mark Duddridge and Jane Abrahams
presented Ginster’s wellbeing programme. I love the irony of Ginster’s speaking
on wellbeing but the story of improving the health of Ginster’s meat-packers and
pie-makers is a one of success.

Mark mentioned that Ginster’s, like all good companies, have
a preventative maintenance programme for their machinery, so why not have one
for the workforce. Liking the wellbeing programme to preventative maintenance for
workers, akin to treating the workers as components in a process, was clearly too
Taylorist for many of the Workplace Trends audience. But the key point made was
that some organisations take more care of their machinery than their true primary
asset – the workers.

If employees are not working then they are not productive,
regardless of how well motivated they are. CIPD quoted the average absenteeism rate
at 8 day per employee per year (approx 3.5% of a working year) and much higher
in some sectors. In Pawel Wargocki’s presentation he told us that a productivity
gain of just 10% would offset all the organisation’s property costs. Pawel’s
analysis is based on the typical percentage of the business costs that are salaries
and property – but base the calculation on the revenue generated by the staff
and the productivity gain for offset is more like 5%. The outcome of this
analysis is that businesses should invest more in their working environments in
order to improve staff performance, rather than reduce investment in the workplace
possibly resulting in loss of productivity.

Some absenteeism is due to accidents and poor ergonomics
(such as RSI and musculoskeletal disorders) the realms of occupational health.
Nevertheless healthy and fit employees are likely to be more alert, and less
prone to accidents or illness, and therefore more productive over the working
year. It seems to me that wellbeing is similar to sustainability in that it is
about prevention of long-term possibly irreversible problems. The problem with
it, like sustainability, is that the effects (positive or negative) are not immediately
obvious and investment in it requires an element of faith.

Later in the day the Workplace Trends delegates were
introduced to Karōshi which is the antithesis of wellbeing. Karōshi means
“death from overwork” and in Japan is recognised as occupational
sudden death, most commonly due to heart attack or stroke brought on by stress
at work. Although I struggle with pushing happiness in the workplace, I certainly
prefer it Karōshi.


It surprised me that, in his light-hearted presentation, Paul
Morrell referred to motivation and to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (it surprised
me even more that it was one of my graphics that he was using without any citation).
At the lower end of the hierarchy are the physiological factors which are arguably
related to a safe and comfortable workplace. Morrell was arguing that we need
to get these factors right before worrying about happiness, although it could be
argued they are fundamental to wellbeing.

At the top of Maslow’s hierarchy is self-actualisation, a point
when we are most productive due to be autonomous, well rewarded and respected. I
can see how happiness is an element of self-actualisation but what Maslow’s hierarchy
of needs is actually about is what motivates us. Maslow’s thesis has never actually
been demonstrated whereas Herzberg’s theory of motivation has. He found that
so-called hygiene factors (safety, ergonomics, temperature, light etc) can
prevent us from performing when they are not right, but it requires
organisational factors (management, colleagues, reward, respect) to motivate us
to perform better. Indeed, research colleagues of Pawel (including myself) would
also argue that the biggest impact on performance is from organisational
factors and the environment can only provide up to a maximum 15% impact.

The final presentation, from Doug Shaw, was an honest and
candid account about humanising the workplace by bringing authenticity,
vulnerability, simplicity and transparency back into it. These will help reduce
fear, enhance interaction, build trust, facilitate collaboration and ultimately
improve performance. The four characterises presented by Doug are actually more
akin to the positive emotions I would like to see in the workplace.


So my closing thought is that the underlying theme of the
conference was not wellbeing and performance but actually motivation and
performance. We shouldn’t worry too much about what makes our staff happy but
focus on how to motivate them (by addressing organisational factors, by
creating great workspaces and by improving their wellbeing) which in turn may
improve happiness but more importantly it will inspire them to perform better
and reap the rewards.