Happiness at Work: A Myth to Be Punctured?

A study in the Harvard Business Review shows happy workers are more creative and productive than unhappy ones. But Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway isn't so sure. She discusses whether happiness at work is important after all with Renee Montagne.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

For today's Wednesday focus on the workplace, we're going to talk about happiness. A recent study published in the Harvard Business Review finds that people's inner work life has a big impact on their performance. The study had over 200 professionals keep diaries of their thoughts at work. It concludes that the happier people are at work, the better their performance is.

We're joined by Lucy Kellaway, a workplace columnist for the Financial Times, and she's a regular guest on this program. Hello.

Ms. LUCY KELLAWAY (Management Columnist, Financial Times): Hello.

MONTAGNE: So let's see what you found out when you recently kept a workplace diary of your thoughts for a week. Did your findings about yourself match the Harvard study?

Ms. KELLAWAY: Well, it was quite interesting. I sat down every day to write down how I was feeling, and then I wrote down how I felt about my work. And so -because I'm a very volatile kind of person - on Monday, I would find that I felt sort of great and that I felt pretty good about my work. Tuesday, maybe a little bit tired, grumpy, felt terrible about my work.

So, at first sight, you would think that this stacked up with what the Harvard Business Review people thought. But then, when I looked back at my work, what was so interesting was on the days when I felt happy, my work wasn't actually that great. It was because I was feeling complacent, I judged it well.

MONTAGNE: Give us an example of one of your entries into your diary from, say, one of your less happy days at work.

Ms. KELLAWAY: Slept badly. It's raining. Get in to work, I'm slightly hung over. What I meant to type is funny, but it feels heavy. I chat to a couple of people, but I'm slightly bad tempered. I return some e-mails grumpily, do a bit more work, go home.

MONTAGNE: Can't tell from that entry but, as you remember it, did you get much accomplished that day?

Ms. KELLAWAY: What was so weird was the next day I came into the office feeling much more cheery, looked back at what I'd written the previous day and actually, I thought it was rather good. I think what was happening was that because I was feeling so grim, I wasn't wasting loads and loads of time chatting to people, making phone calls, sort of cheerily looking things up on the Internet. I was doggedly getting on with the job. The other thing was because I wasn't feeling that great about myself, I was really trying.

MONTAGNE: Let me get this straight. You could do better if you're stressed out. I mean, the stressing out is a motivating factor.

Ms. KELLAWAY: Yes, I think stress is - it gets a really, really bad press that it doesn't altogether deserve. When I'm quite stressed, I'm quite focused. I'm really punishing on myself. You know, obviously, it's a matter of balance. If I'm so stressed I'm bouncing off the ceiling, I'm about to have a heart attack, and I'm no good to anyone, let alone to myself. But I think, at levels of stress that softies would tell you were not good, we actually perform rather well.

MONTAGNE: There's nothing whatsoever scientific about your diary and...

Ms. KELLAWAY: You know, I would be the first to agree with you there.

MONTAGNE: ...but you would say if one took your entries, your experience, that might be proof managers might want to keep us all, what, miserable?

Ms. KELLAWAY: Well, you see, now I don't think it's as simple as that, because I'm talking about a sort of internal, sort of existential angst. The sort of bad feeling that managers can create, which they do even without trying, is through bad management. Now I don't think that's terribly motivating, alas - or maybe not alas. If the company is badly managed and you feel demoralized, you're much more likely to think, oh, what the hell. I don't care if my work is good or not. And if you are concentrating well and forcing yourself to work, you're likely to be producing a lot better stuff than if you're just feeling sort of sunnily cheerful, hey, ho, isn't the world a good place, then I don't think you push yourself.

MONTAGNE: Lucy, thanks very much.

Ms. KELLAWAY: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Lucy Kellaway, of course, writes the workplace column for the Financial Times.

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