Who Goes to Work to Have Fun?
The New York Times December 12, 2013
"ONE of our core values is to inject fun and quirkiness into everything we do," Neil Blumenthal, a founder of the online eyeglass retailer Warby Parker, recently told The New York Times. This is a philosophy currently enjoying a resurgence in the tech and retail industries, among others. As we enter the season of office holiday parties, it's a safe assumption that the workplace quirkiness quotient will skyrocket. Which means it's also the season for the curmudgeons among us to renew our passionate entreaty: Please - no, really, please - can we stop trying to "make work fun"?
Despite the sobering economic shocks of recent years, the Fun at Work movement seems irrepressible. Major companies boast of employing Chief Fun Officers or Happiness Engineers; corporations call upon a burgeoning industry of happiness consultants, who'll construct a Gross Happiness Index for your workplace, then advise you on ways to boost it. (Each week, Warby Parker asks "everyone to tell their happiness rating on a scale of zero to 10," Mr. Blumenthal explained.)
Countless self-help bloggers offer tips for generating cheer among the cubicles ("Buy donuts for everyone"; "Hang movie posters on your walls, with employees' faces replacing those of the real movie stars"). It's all shudderingly reminiscent of David Brent, Ricky Gervais's wince-inducing character from the British version of "The Office"; or of the owner of the nuclear power plant in "The Simpsons" who considers distracting attention from the risk of lethal meltdowns by holding Funny Hat Days.
Lest my curmudgeonliness be mistaken for misanthropy, let's be clear: There's nothing wrong with happiness at work. Enjoyable jobs are surely preferable to boring or unpleasant ones; moreover, studies suggest that happy employees are more productive ones. But it doesn't follow that the path to this desirable state of affairs is through deliberate efforts, on the part of managers, to try to generate fun. Indeed, there's evidence that this approach - which has been labeled, suitably appallingly, "fungineering" - might have precisely the opposite effect, making people miserable and thus reaffirming one of the oldest observations about happiness: When you try too hard to obtain it, you're almost guaranteed to fail.
A study by management experts at Penn State and other universities, published last month, found that while "fun" activities imposed by bosses might slow employee turnover, they can damage overall productivity. Another concluded that the fashionable tactic of "gamification" - turning work tasks into games, with scores and prizes - reduced the productivity and job satisfaction of those workers who didn't approve the notion.
Worse still, the pressure to maintain a cheery facade in such workplaces can be stressful and exhausting in itself, a form of what the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild called "emotional labor." In a 2011 study of workers at an Australian call center, where bosses championed the "3 Fs" (focus, fun and fulfillment), researchers found that many experienced the party atmosphere as a burden, not a boon. Pret a Manger, the British sandwich chain with branches in America, reportedly sends mystery shoppers to its cafes, withholding bonuses from insufficiently exuberant teams.
The problem here is an organizational version of the "paradox of hedonism," best expressed by John Stuart Mill: "Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so." The attempt to impose happiness is self-sabotaging. Psychologists have shown that positive-thinking affirmations make people with low self-esteem feel worse; that patients with panic disorders can become more anxious when they try to relax; and that an ability to experience negative emotions, rather than struggling to exclude them, is crucial for mental health.
And these are just the hazards of trying to enforce happiness on oneself: Matters are surely more fraught when the person doing the enforcing is a manager with possible ulterior motives, such as discouraging too much focus on low wages or inherently unfulfilling work. (Besides, what about the happiness of all those remote workers who have to read the companywide email about free yoga classes, or the cake in the second-floor kitchen, but are unable to partake?)
Instead of striving to make work fun, managers should concentrate on creating the conditions in which a variety of personality types, from the excitable to the naturally downbeat, can flourish. That means giving employees as much autonomy as possible, and ensuring that people are treated evenhandedly. According to a recent Danish study, lack of fairness at work is a strong predictor of depression, and even heavy workloads don't bring people down, provided their bosses are fair.
Not that you'd necessarily want an office full of optimists, even if that were achievable. People who are oriented toward "defensive pessimism" play a valuable role, preparing organizations for worst-case scenarios.
And if your business card describes you as Head of Fungineering, or Chief Cheerfulness Ninja, or Vice President of Wow, please skip the next company paintballing weekend, and use the time to ask yourself a few tough questions instead.