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The Work Foundation

Is happiness a meaningful measure?

Authors: The Work Foundation Paul Farmer, Chief Executive, Mind

13 June 2011

This year’s annual debate at The Work Foundation focussed on the question of happiness and its relationship with work, as the government prepares to unveil its first National Wellbeing Index next year.

The relationship between happiness, unhappiness and work is a subject we’ve been looking at with great interest at Mind. Our current campaign, Taking care of business featuring our new friend on twitter @The_Elephant_ has already attracted plenty of attention as we highlight the issue of mental health in the workplace, truly the elephant in the room in many workplaces.

This theme was well developed in the debate, especially by both Will Hutton and Professor Cary Cooper, who highlighted the need to understand both poor wellbeing as well as what makes for a mentally healthy workplace. Cary Cooper particularly reminded us of the excellent work done by the government’s Foresight Report a couple of years ago, which is probably the best summary of evidence about how to develop mental capital and wellbeing across all ages.

Mind’s campaign builds on the five ways to wellbeing recommended in the Foresight report, targeting employers to take the lead in confronting the elephant in the room. In partnership with organisations like The Work Foundation, Mind is raising awareness of the £26 billion cost to business of mental distress in the workplace and supporting employers to create mentally healthy workplaces, with over 5,000 employers receiving our free guide (http://www.mind.org.uk/work/employees) so far.

Awareness of the issue is improving, but eight in ten employers still have no mental health policy to help staff sustain good mental health (Shaw Trust, 2010). Right now, one in six workers is experiencing depression, anxiety or stress, but mental health at work is the elephant in the room. Mind has found that staff feel unable to speak up about their difficulties, for fear of discrimination, while employers shy away from the subject, for fear of getting it wrong. Our new research found work is the most stressful thing in people’s lives, but one in five people fear mentioning stress to their manager would put them first in line for redundancy.

Mind is campaigning for open workplace environments, where employees can raise issues and employers are equipped to respond early to nip problems in the bud – preventing health crises and saving money. In May, we held a high-level Business summit with key sector leaders, including The Work Foundation, to explore challenges and identify peer-led solutions. We are also developing tools with the CIPD to facilitate conversations about mental ill health and support employers to respond to disclosure by employees.

Back to happiness, though, and the 'godfather' of happiness himself, Lord Richard Layard. Richard has been a tireless campaigner and researcher on this agenda for many years, and his involvement in the construction of the Happiness index should reassure us that this will have real purpose and be extremely robust.

But what’s it for? Will the new index create a league table of happiness in the UK, with towns vying with each other to become Britain’s happiest places? Will employers take it seriously in shaping the approaches they take in the future?

Of course there will be sceptics – we saw some of them at the debate. Those who can’t see the point, or feel that our current business culture isn’t yet ready to embrace issues like wellbeing. I welcome the sceptics – they help us to have the debate openly and to explore this issue thoroughly.

For me, the key issue here is taking the subject of emotional wellbeing in the workplace sufficiently seriously to start to change the attitudes of a generation. For too long, the relationship between work and contentment has primarily been seen through the prism of financial gain, whether you’re in work or out of it. This whole debate is helping to redress the balance. I doubt if we would have seen this subject as an annual debate topic ten years ago, but I’m very happy to see it now!

Comments in Chronological Order (Total 1 Comments)

Liam McClure

18 Jun 2011 4:19PM

Thanks for the really interesting blog,

The relationship between work and happiness is really important and I think that you are totally correct about the link to financial gain and how it needs to be re-addressed. I thought that you might be interested in having a look at this project that I am working on -

http://www.oxfam.org.uk/humankindindex

I am currently working with Oxfam Scotland to try and change the way that a countries growth is measured in more than just GDP. With the hope that policy makers will pay attention to what is actually important to people. Rather than ask how happy people are we are trying to find out what enables them to live happy lives.

Any thoughts or feedback would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks again.

Liam McClure