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Why happy employees aren’t productive

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Over the past few years, as more companies place emphasis on building a strong and engaged office culture, it has always been believed that happy employees are productive employees.

Unfortunately, we may have been misled the entire time.

In order to test the theory that happy employees do not actually equal productive employees, Harvard University researcher Matt Killingsworth built an app called Track Your Happiness and found it’s not the happiest employees who are productive. Rather, it’s the most productive employees who are happiest.

Ultimately, Killingworth’s study determined employees are happiest and most satisfied when working “in the zone”, or being so absorbed and focused in their job that they are able to fully commit to it.

His research is the latest to suggest companies may be approaching the relationship between staff happiness and employee productiveness from the wrong angle.

The app, which tracked data from more than 15,000 people in over 80 countries, found multi-tasking is one of the biggest stumbling blocks in productivity.

“As it turns out, people are substantially less happy when their minds are wandering than when they’re not,” Killingsworth said in a TedX talk where he presented his findings.

This supports a separate Harvard survey conducted in 2010 which found multi-tasking (which includes mind-wandering) causes a 10% drop in IQ because human brains are less productive when forces to rapidly switch between tasks.

If smaller distractions such as responding to a text or instant message cause employees to take an average of 15 minutes to return to more intense mental tasks, such as writing a report, then consider the amount of lost productivity if employees are taking breaks to play at the game console mid-day.

And with more organisations moving towards an open-layout office, the absence of a cubicle could mean more distractions for an employee who needs a bit more privacy to focus on his work.

For companies working in an open layout, consider providing smaller meeting rooms or breakout spaces where employees can go to when they need time away from the bustle of the office.

At the end of the day, don’t forget that while employee happiness may not have a big an impact on productivity as we may have initially thought, happy staff are still more engaged, loyal and valuable than dissatisfied workers.

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Sabrina Zolkifi
Deputy editor
Human Resources Magazine Singapore

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