The merit in measuring smiles
Source: State of the Service Report, 2011-12.
''Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence,'' Aristotle wrote. Yet it's only recently that Western institutions have begun to throw serious money at this ''problem'' (that is, our lack of it).
These days, an army of academics is trying to measure happiness; just mentioning it (or its cousin, ''wellbeing'') in a research application seems a sure-fire way of snatching a grant. Many economists have built quantitative models of wellbeing as an alternative to the gross national product, mimicking Bhutan's ''gross national happiness'' - a mash of data and survey results on economic, health, environmental and social issues. In April, the United Nations even hosted a ''high-level meeting'' on global happiness and wellbeing.
And if you're a regular Radio National listener, you'll have been bombarded over the past month with programs on ''mindfulness''. Put simply, this means focusing on and enjoying the moment rather than being distracted. A motley group - yogis, business consultants and psychiatrists - is now spruiking mindfulness as an all-purpose tonic, especially for depression and anxiety but also for productivity. And it's this last point that's attracting the research dollars: are happy workers better workers?
Many managers remain loath to employ part-timers or staff who work from home.
Scientific attempts to test that question suggest the answer is ''yes'', though defining ''happiness'' is a tad problematic. For example, in 2010, researchers at Britain's University of Warwick asked two groups of people to sit a maths exam. The first group sat through a 10-minute comedy act before the test ''to induce a short-run happiness shock''; they strongly outperformed the others. A similar experiment involved asking people about ''recent life shocks'', such as divorce, illness or a relative's death. Again, the least traumatised were the top scorers.
The Public Service Commission has also taken great interest in this area recently. Not ''happiness'' per se - which is complex and not necessarily work-related - but ''employee engagement''. The commission regularly checks public servants' satisfaction levels with their job, workmates, boss and agency, and compares the results to their ''productivity''.
Now, it's notoriously hard to assess productivity in the public service, where work outcomes can be too vague to measure. But we have some clues: the hours staff work, the amount of unscheduled leave they take, whether they intend to leave their job soon and how productive they think they are. And the data that's emerging suggests all these factors are linked with satisfaction and engagement (and probably happiness, too).
Perhaps the most interesting finding is the link between age and work-life balance. The graph below shows very young and very old workers are clearly the most satisfied. I'm sure it's no coincidence that the so-called ''iGeneration'' (those aged under 26 years) and ''Lucky Generation'' (66-plus) are also the most engaged with their work, in every area the commission measures.
This tells us little about the path to happiness and the meaning of existence. But it's a rather strong hint to employers that trying to assemble a Stakhanovite workforce of 60-hour-a-week toilers won't necessarily improve productivity for most staff, especially those of parenting age.
As I wrote last month, many managers today remain loath to employ part-timers or staff who work from home. Nonetheless, people need more in their life than a job to be good at their jobs.