Well-being or Being at Work?

Survey after survey, we are told that employees lack motivation and recognition, are little engaged in their work, and many are stressed or in deep psychological pain.

“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end but always at the same time as an end.” Immanuel Kant

The 2017 Gallup « State of the American Workplace » report, probably the most comprehensive of its kind, reveals that only 33% of employees are engaged in their work. 16% say they are « actively disengaged ». The rest, that is 51%, are not engaged and are just there.

Comparative studies show, consistently, that French employees are among the most dissatisfied with their work. According to a survey conducted by Steelacase in 23 countries, only 5% of French employees are happy at work and are at the bottom of the ranking. This finding, which must be received with caution, is corroborated by a study by Deloitte and Cadremploi where respondents attribute the score 4.8 / 10 to the quality of life at work and, above all, that 7 out of 10 do not feel recognized for their true value.

For a long time, companies have been responding to the low level of commitment of their employees through programs aimed at improving well-being (or life quality) at work. The catalog of actions is long and keeps growing: flexible work time, telecommuting, layout of work spaces, gym, massage at the office, nap corner, table football, free access food, concierge services, etc. A growing number of companies have even appointed a Chief Happiness Officer. In the US, it is estimated that investment in employee well-being has generated a $ 6 billion industry.

Well-being programs are based on the assumption that an employee who is cared for is more motivated, therefore more engaged or more loyal to the employer. And yet, surveys continue to show a different, if not contrary, reality of low engagement. Why ?

One answer, I submit, lies in the difference that managers and human resource managers must understand between investing in well-being and accepting the expression of employees’ being at work.

A company can spend good money on well-being initiatives and fail to improve motivation and engagement, and even less, make its employees happy if they aspire to express their being at work but management systems and practices do not enable them to do so.

At this point, it is important to explain what is meant by « expressing being » at work and why it is important. Expressing one’s being means that an employee has a say in the canonical dimensions of his or her work, namely: what, why, where, how, when and with whom.

To illustrate, a worker posted on a timed assembly line or an operator in a call center performs a constrained script and has almost no degrees of freedom. Once at the workstation, he or she becomes a cog in a complex machinery over which he or she has no influence. The employer can make sincere efforts to reduce the hardship and improve the working conditions in order to increase the employee’s productivity but these peripheral actions do not change the constrained and constraining nature of the work.

At the risk of shocking the reader, many well-being at work programs do not fundamentally differ from the real and sincere concern for the welfare of animals in industrial farms and slaughterhouses. In most modern organizations, the well-being of workers is intrinsically instrumental and is geared toward economic efficiency. The same is true for animal farming and exploitation. The quote below could very well be part of a ‘human resources management’ manual. One would just replace « animal » by « employee ».

Beyond any controversy with regard to the existence or lack of conscience or sensitivity in animals, many justify the welfare of farmed animals as a means to an efficiency goal. In other word… by creating a living environment where they enjoy a certain comfort food and free movement … we can improve the output of animals … Animal welfare is therefore primarily a response to the need for man to provide himself with reliable food.

Improving well-being at work can satisfy people, and there are many, who sell their labor against a salary, do not seek self-achievement in their day job, and minimize their psychological engagement in the workplace. Well-being programs are not enough when employees aspire to exist in the company as whole purposeful beings, recognized as such, and are not distracted from this by the material comfort of which the employer can surround them.

The Gallup report, mentioned in the introduction, confirms this statement. The well-being actions that have the highest positive impact are those that allow more flexibility, autonomy and the possibility of leading a better life [1].

The aspiration to self-realization, the quest for autonomy and the quest for meaning are particularly acute in Generation Y, whose members no longer accept a vertical management that thinks for them and expects mere enthusiastic execution.

The aspiration to exist and act as a subject explains why a good number of young talented people are turning away from traditional companies where they perceive few possibilities of expressing themselves. The same driver pushes young people to less comfortable career paths, such as entrepreneurship or altruistic work, where material discomfort is largely offset by the feeling of being in charge of one’s life and making a difference.

Accepting being at work requires management practices that accommodate the aspirations, availability, orientations and constraints of employees instead of asking them to merely respond to the needs, strategies, and objectives of the company.

This amounts to accomplishing what I have called elsewhere, a Copernican revolution where companies too adapt to people, not only the other way around. Workplace well-being programs can be fantastic levers for mobilization when they support a management approach based on reciprocity and personalization of the individual-organization relationship.

Where management is anchored in a vertical view of the organization and where human resources management policies are geared, first and foremost, to securing the obedience of employees, investing in material comfort can mask, more or less effectively, the constraining nature of the system. It is foolish, in such a context, to believe that investment in the work environment, alone, can make people happy in the long run.

(1) The benefits and perks that employees truly care about are those that offer them greater flexibility, autonomy and the ability to lead a better life.

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Article de : Hamid Bouchikhi - Professor at Essec Business School, Director of the Centre of Excellence in Entrepreneurship