2012 should be the year we get off the couch and make companies more productive

WELL-BEING in the workplace is a value to which employers and workers alike have signed up. Psychology textbooks, that hardly mentioned the subject in the recessionary 1970s, are now full of strategies to promote emotional “well-being at work”. It’s not about old-fashioned pay and conditions, but how you feel at and about work. Even when you are getting the sack, HR departments use exit interviews and the like to try to ensure that you feel valued during the process.

The trouble is, well-being strategies can encourage unproductive behaviour and presenteeism – spending too long at work and making it part, if not all of your social life.

The happier you are at work, the longer you spend there, but that doesn’t mean you are more productive. It might be better for you and your firm if you go home on time and get a life. After all it is “the toad work” that squats on our lives, according to the cheerless verse of Philip Larkin.

It’s not the psychologists but the economists that are to blame for the current emotionalising of work. I remember going to a discussion at the London School of Economics (LSE) on Emotional Prosperity. The title alone should have invited scorn and derision. Economists who apply their formulas to enriching our inner lives have given up on encouraging real material prosperity. Doyen of the LSE Lord Richard Layard has dreamed up a new “science of happiness”. These emotional economists’ happiness quotients must be on the increase as they laugh all the way to the bank. Once academics mused about the economic importance of IQ (intelligence quotient); now they talk about EQ (emotional quotient) and HQ (happiness quotient). It’s profitable for them, but are they just selling the rest of us the old pup that we’re better off poor but happy?

Some have tried to have it both ways. In 2009, Nice (the national institute for health and clinical excellence) issued guidelines to promote mental well-being in the workplace. Dr Richard Preece, an occupational medicine consultant with the Mid-Cheshire NHS Trust, who was involved in drawing up the guidance, said: “All managers know that happy workers are productive workers”.

Nice argues that in 2009 13.7m working days were lost through lack of well-being, indicating an annual cost of £28.3bn to the economy. Professor Susan Michie, a member of the Public Health Interventions Advisory Committee at Nice, concluded: “Workplace mental wellbeing is important both for staff and the organisation’s productivity”.

Yet such arguments seem retrospective rationalisation at best. The Nice document is no hard-headed proposal for boosting turnover, it is full of therapy talk about self-esteem, sense of identity and fulfilment for employees. The workplace has become important not for working in but for working out your personal issues.

This therapeutic intrusion into our working lives reflects modern management psychology, with its belief in building a culture of participation, flexibility, fairness, open communication and inclusion by nannying workers with supportive leadership styles and policing them with tools like attitude surveys and training for their awareness of emotional well-being.

This new cultural focus can seem unexceptionable – let’s face it, no-one wants to work for an employer who crushes the life out of them – but we have to assess its real cost. Consider the time and money spent in management meetings, consultations and development activities around the well-being fad.

Much is therapeutic: the away-days for management and staff run by consultants, populating every hotel you visit. Playing games with flip charts and Post-its, and being empowered to write on tablecloths or cut out pictures from magazines to represent your firm’s future. I’ve even heard of Lego-building activities to discover leadership styles.

Most of these initiatives, even when enjoyable for staff, are unproductive, wasting a company’s valuable resources.

Overall, the effect of building a therapy culture in the workplace is to stifle both creativity and the possibility of seeing what is unimportant and what is really of social or economic value in what companies and public sector bodies do – and to build on the latter.

With the economy in a grim state and huge government debts on our shoulders, therapy culture at work cannot and must not continue. The longer we choose to play at work, the worse the eventual impact will be on everyone.

At the start of the twenty-first century, the economist Phil Mullan warned that new management trends could “crystallise in the emergence of the therapeutic company with its emphasis on self-help and self-improvement, on the importance of how workers feel and the pursuit of emotionally literacy”.

Over a decade later, it’s time to get up from the therapist’s couch and rebuild the productive company.

Dennis Hayes is professor of education at the University of Derby and the co-author of The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education.