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Insight | The Hypocrisy of Happiness

15 November 2017

Dr Tom Calvard argues the cult of self-improvement masks a worrying shift in the apportioning of responsibility in the workplace.

Today’s world is awash with the idea of well-being. Be more mindful, we’re told. Meditate, focus on self-improvement, take regular exercise, eat clean and you’ll be happy.

The neoliberal mantra of more free market and less state provision has become embedded in society. So too has the idea of absolute personal responsibility in the workplace.

The word stress has become conspicuous in its absence, as positive psychology and happiness research has focused on individual resilience.

Empowering people to take more ownership of their lives and careers not only improves work-life balance, we’re told. But it also reconciles the aims of a happy, healthy workforce with the need for more productivity and competitiveness.

You only have to look to the growth of the multibillion-dollar wellbeing industry to see the appeal of the argument.

Wellness is something we should all aim for and is no bad thing in concept. But the argument has also taken a dark side . The cult of self-improvement masks a worrying shift in the apportioning of responsibility in the workplace.

The march of neoliberalism has brought with it austerity, rapid globalisation, widening income- inequality. All against the backdrop of an elitist financialisation of the economy and society.

Here in the UK, longer working hours, more precarious jobs and intensified performance demands have contributed to a 41% increase in mental health problems. Sports Direct has had its work conditions likened to ‘workhouses’.

The gruelling intern culture in the City of London has led to humiliation, exhaustion and even death.  There have been outbreaks of physical violence between Air France workers and their leaders. While in the US, an over-worked Amazon employee attempted to take their own life.

By exclusively focusing on the individual, the current research conversation has allowed an environment where it’s okay to shift the onus for workers’ welfare from the employer to the employee.

If you aren’t having a good time at work, you are stressed, over tired or you’re not getting on well with co-workers, it’s your fault. Be more resilient, deal with the challenges and keep smiling, because your wellbeing is no one else’s responsibility other than your own.

It’s also an environment which pits us against one another to get ahead. Gone are the days of trade unionism and solidarity. You’re on your own.

It’s a toxic work culture, which is tantamount to violence. It causes actual harm to employees and it is counterproductive.  We know for a fact unhappy, stressed and tired workers are less productive

Moreover, abusing workers causes reputational harm and ultimately reduces an organisation’s ability to retain talent.

Among the hubris around wellbeing, researchers have taken their eyes off the factors which cause harm to people in the workplace. And in our obsession with self improvement, as a society we’ve given unscrupulous employers a free pass to exploit their workforces.

It’s in our interests to challenge this and make work, work for us all.


Dr Thomas Calvard is Lecturer in Human Resource Management. Together with Dr Katherine Sang of Heriot Watt University, he has published a new paper on positive psychology and employee well-being in the International Journal of Human Resource Management.

Image source: @iStockphoto/ALotOfPeople