Category Archives: Happy At Work

How to be happy at work

New research: Overwork kills productivity AND employees

Yikes – overwork can kill you:

… those working a 55-hour week face 33% increased risk of stroke than those working a 35- to 40-hour week.

And to make matters worse, all those extra hours don’t even mean you get more work done:

[Overwork] … doesn’t seem to result in more output.

So overwork is killing employees while not improving business results. Can we stop it already?

It’s a topic I’ve talked about a lot on this blog.

Leading with happiness


I believe we’re seeing a new kind of leadership emerging.

It’s been a truism that leadership is about maximizing business results, whatever it takes. As the economist Milton Friedman depressingly put it:

The business of business is business.

He argued that a CEO who spent resources on anything that did not enhance shareholder value was failing his duties and could be fired or sued.

This kind of thinking is still incredibly prevalent in the business world and it leads to attitudes and actions that are incredibly damaging.

This is the kind of thinking that lets a corporation:

  • Fire 1,000s of employees to raise stock prices temporarily.
  • Engage in environmentally damaging production.
  • Introduce a culture of overwork that works employees to the bone while damaging their careers, their health and their private lives.
  • Confuse and cheat customers into buying as much as possible at the highest price possible, rather than helping customers buy what they need.
  • Exploit workers, always paying them as little as they can get away with to make more money for their investors.
  • Create toxic cultures where employees live in near-constant fear and frustration.

You may think me dystopian but these things go on daily in corporations all over the world. And ultimately executives think they are right to do these kinds of things because their only responsibility is shareholder value. They take no responsibilities to do good in the world – or even avoid doing bad.

In fact, they have been so immersed in this kind of thinking that they can do incredible harm and feel no remorse. I have seen way too many press releases where a CEO explains why she/he fired 1,000s of employees to “enhance stakeholder value” without showing even a shred of regret or emotional investment in the fact that their leadership is now harming 1000s of families.

And that is why I think we need a new kind of executive – one that is motivated primarily by doing good. Or, in other words, by increasing happiness.

And I do see a lot of these leaders. They are not perfect people but they have a clear vision of what they want in the world and rather than just maximizing shareholder value, they want to create more happiness in 4 domains:

  1. For themselves
  2. For their employees
  3. For their customers
  4. For the world

These leaders create organizations that are a force for good in the world. They lead in a way that is sustainable – not just environmentally but also economically and psychologically.

Their employees’ lives are better and happier for working there. Customers’ lives are improved by the company’s services or products. And the world is in some way a better place because this company exists.

And don’t ignore the first one: These leaders are happy themselves, because they know that their leadership is making things better, not worse.

There are many examples of these leaders in all industries and all over the world. I’ll be writing a book about them next. The ones I know of include Tony Hsieh, Richard Branson, Ben Zander, Ricardo Semler, Lars Kolind, Vineet Nayar, Thyra Frank, Rich Sheridan, Herb Kelleher, Colleen Barrett, Charlie Kim, Patch Adams, Odd Reitan, Ingvar Kamprad, Yvon Chouinard and many, many others.

Your take

Do you see more happy leadership or more if the old kind out there? What does either of them do to you?

And if you know any other happy leaders, I’d love to hear about them.

Related posts

I don’t know of a single nurse who isn’t afraid of being fired.

Here is a really scary email I got from a nurse in a US hospital. She was kind enough to give me permission to reprint the email here and you can see my reply below.

I would love to hear your ideas on the healthcare industry.  As you may know, hospitals reimbursement for Medicare are in part determined by patient satisfaction.  Management, in turn, has adopted the “customer is always right” in order to secure positive feedback. As you can imagine, this has not worked.

At the same time, nurses are quitting by the truckloads.  Employee morale is at a ridiculously low point and it has been so ongoing that the phrases you hear from nurses are, “Well, its better here than anywhere else”.  This is particularly concerning since it is seemingly so bad here.  Let me say that the nurses I work with absolutely love taking care of people.  It is the hurdles that are placed in front of us that make the job frustrating.

We work at critical staffing levels routinely, are floated to areas we have not been adequately trained, and are given unreasonable patient loads. It is unsafe.

A patient died recently and was not on the monitor at the time.  The organizations answer was to have staff sign a book at during the shift stating that the monitor was checked and all patients were on them… the reason the patient was off the monitor was because the nurse didn’t have time to do it.

We were critically staffed and even the charge nurse had a full team with 2/3 other nurses floated from a lower level of care and not trained to take care of this type of patient.  When the house charge nurse informed management that the reason was related to staffing, she was written up.

I don’t know of a single nurse who isn’t afraid of being fired.  Nurses routinely lie about this because to voice it would cost them their job.

It would be nice to be able to quit and move to another facility, however, it isn’t any different at other facilities.  This problem is prevalent, endemic, and critical.

Here is an example of the culture…
The hospital policy is for every nurse to take a 30 minute lunch break (its actually the law)
If you don’t take a lunch you can be written up
There is nobody here to relieve you for your lunch
Not enough staff on the floor to safely leave for lunch so we all eat at the desk while we work

We are not supposed to lift patients. There are 3 lifts in the entire hospital so we have to lift patients
When I informed the wound nurse that the increase in pressure ulcers were from staff being given too many patients to take care of properly and no lifts, I was told that we had plenty of lifts and to use proper body mechanics.

I don’t know if you have any ideas….but I’m hoping that you do.

And here’s my reply:

Thank you so much for your email. I have worked with some Danish hospitals and I see many of the same issues you point to, primarily that budget cuts lead to permanent understaffing.
It’s terrible. If there’s one industry where jobs should be fulfilling and meaningful it’s healthcare, because there you get to work directly on making patients’ lives better. But of course, this is impossible when you’re not given the resources to do the job well.
What happens in that case is that jobs become incredibly stressful and frustrating because employees see that the system is hurting patients instead.
Here’s what I think hospitals need: A rebellion. Nurses, doctors and other employees need to stand up and protest conditions in some way that management can not overlook.
I gave a talk about being a workplace rebel – you can see it here:
This will not be easy – but neither is the current situation.
The obvious question is: What can a group of employees possibly do against a huge entrenched and uncaring system? And the answer is We don’t know. Nobody knows what we can do until we do it.
I wish I had something more specific to offer but I don’t think there are any easy solutions to this situation.
What are your thoughts on this? Do you see this going on? What are some ways to solve it? Have you ever encountered a really happy hospital? What did they do differently?

The most basic freedom is the freedom to quit


Bernie deKoven points to this fascinating article by Peter Gray that examines quitting. Here’s an excerpt:

We like to think of human rights in affirmative terms, so we speak most often of our rights to move toward what we want:  our rights to vote, assemble freely, speak freely, and choose our own paths to happiness. My contention here, however, is that the most basic right—the right that makes all other rights possible—is the right to quit.

He looks at our freedom to quit i.e. work and relationships and show how important that is.

Gray points to hunter-gatherer societies as the origin of our freedom to quit:

As anthropologists have repeatedly pointed out, band hunter-gatherers are highly mobile.  Not only does the whole band move regularly from place to place, to follow he available game and edible vegetation, but individuals and families also move from band to band.

Because hunter-gatherers don’t own land and don’t own more personal property than they can easily carry, and because they all have friends and relatives in other bands, they are always free to move.

People who feel oppressed in their current band, and who find no intra-band route to overcome that oppression, can, at a moment’s notice, pick up their things and move out, either to join another band or to start their own band with a group of friends.

Fascinating stuff that has applications in all aspects of life – especially at work. As I’ve often pointed out, many people stay way too long in jobs they don’t like. Here are some examples:


The fundamental unfairness of the vacation auto reply


With the summer holidays rapidly approaching, I’ve been thinking a lot about vacation auto replies.

Here’s the problem: Although anyone who sends you a mail is told not to expect a reply until you get back, they probably still expect an answer at that point. This is fundamentally unfair.

You’re away from work. As part of your contract with the company, you have some time off and yet some of the work from your vacation time is thereby shifted into your post-vacation work days.

And I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a company that plans for their employees to have extra time after a vacation to deal with the emails that came in during the vacation. Therefore this becomes extra work you have to do on top of your regular tasks.

One consequence of this is that many people end up checking their emails and responding to them during their holidays, which is also unfair. You’re entitled to time away from work. That’s what a holiday is.

One of the most insidious effects of this is that taking longer stretches of time away from the office is punished immediately upon return, because your inbox will be full to overflowing. I haven’t seen any research on this, but I could easily imagine that this would subconsciously discourage people from taking time off or at the very least increase stress around any time off.

What can we do about it? This policy from Daimler is the solution:

The car and truck maker has implemented a new program that allows employees to set their email software to automatically delete incoming emails while they are on vacation.

When an email is sent, the program, which is called “Mail on Holiday,” issues a reply to the sender that the person is out of the office and that the email will be deleted, while also offering the contact information of another employee for pressing matters.

Brilliant. Now you can go on vacation knowing that when you come back, your inbox will contain the same number of emails as when you left.

I think this is the perfect solution and I would love to see more companies adopt it. Maybe this is something unions could work for in the 21st century.

Your take

Do you have a vacation auto reply? Do you check and reply to emails during your vacation or handle them all when you’re back?  If you go on vacation for 2 weeks, how many mails are going to be in your inbox when you get back? How much time will it take you to deal with them and how do you plan for it?

Related posts

Never measure employees on metrics they can’t control


I once worked with a large insurance company, where the claims handling employees were measured on a number of factors, including average customer wait time on the phone. This is a very typical metric or KPI for call centers and customer service centers but it suffers from one fundamental flaw: That number is outside of the control of the employees.

The math is simple: Wait time depends on how many calls come in minus the number of calls employees handle. The latter is something employees can control, the first one is completely outside of their control.

Wait times = calls coming in – how many calls we handle.

In the case of this insurance company, employees were busy and wait times were going up because of the weather. An unusually wet summer had resulted in several floods all of which lead to a massive increase in the number of calls coming in.

As an employee of this insurance company you have very little influence on the weather and yet your performance rating is directly affected by it. This is patently unfair and a surefire recipe for unhappiness, frustration and stress at work.

What happened in this case was that the claims handling employees would get a weekly email with a red graph showing how much they were falling behind on their KPIs. This graph was also proudly displayed in all offices and in the cafeteria and covered in every department meeting. And every week it just got worse, even though the team was doing their very best and working as hard as they possibly could.

Even though all employees and leaders knew that the weather was to blame, this still significantly lowered morale and created a lot of stress.

Workplaces everywhere are giving employees metrics and KPIs in the hope of measuring and ultimately increasing performance. I am incredibly sceptical of this whole approach, but it is especially damaging when your performance is rated on factors you do not control.

We know from any number of studies that a lack of perceived control and self-efficacy leads to frustration and stress so if your workplace has to have metrics, at least make sure that no one is measured on factors they have no control over.

And remember: It’s not enough for the metric to be partly under your control. If just one component of a metric is outside of your control, the whole metric is. In the example above, even though the number of calls employees handle is something they can control, the weather clearly is not and therefore the whole metric is suspect.

In the case of this insurance company, we got them to scrap that metric and instead focus only on the number of calls handled – which is something employees control directly. This made the employees much happier at work which in turn made them more productive and the number of calls handled actually increased week by week.

Your take

What metrics and KPIs are you measured on? Are they inside or outside of your own control? Do you find them generally beneficial, ie. that they make work more pleasant and help you do a better job or generally detrimental?

The first Woohoo Academy was a huge hit. Want to join us for the next one?

WoohooAcademy-2392We just had our first ever Woohoo Academy – a 3-day in-depth training for anyone who wants to learn all about happiness at work – and it was a smash hit.

12 people from 7 countries came to Copenhagen for it. The group was a mix of happiness consultants who can use the content in their work with clients and CEOs and HR managers who can apply it to make their own workplaces happier.


Here’s some of what they had to say about the training:

The Woohoo Academy was, without a doubt, the best training I have ever experienced (and I’ve participated in many trainings). It was very well organized, and provided the latest research, practical strategies and opportunities to engage in many meaningful experiential activities. I also have to mention Alex’s passion and enthusiasm for happiness at work, which I found highly contagious. The training provided me with a much richer understanding of why happiness at work is vital to the success of employees and companies, and also with the how of creating happiness at work. I feel incredibly inspired and that my training dollars were well spent. I highly recommend this training to anyone who feels the calling to create happier workplaces.

– Danielle, Canada

I have attended many motivational and leadership courses over the past 20 years and never came out with so much clarity as after this course. It was interesting with so many nationalities, experiences and angles to the same topic.
The value vs time spend for me was immense as my entire organisation over 100 people will benefit directly.

– Monika, Czech Republic

My main reason for going to the course was to got a broader persepctive on Happiness@work.I wanted to learn more about the theory behind joy,people, work, meaning and succes in businesses. The course gave me a lot of confidence on this topic and I’m convinced that within a copple of years this will be a very important part of leading a business.

– Tamara, Netherlands

For me, this Academy was a huge pleasure too. It let me take a deep dive into many of the things we’ve learned about happiness at work over the years, which I find incredibly fascinating, but which I rarely get a chance to share because it goes into more depth than most of our clients need.

Also, the group that came for this training were all smart, engaged people with a real passion for happiness at work. And they were all incredibly nice. As I mentioned at the Academy, you don’t get a lot of jerks coming to this kind of training. They’re probably across town at the business school learning all about business strategy :)

And finally – everyone passed the training and I got a real sense that the participants got the knowledge, tools and energy they need to make a real difference where they are – inside their own organizations or as consultants/coaches/speakers.

We are currently planning the next Academy for this winter and we’re going to have that one somewhere in North America. Sign up here if you might be interested and we’ll let you know as soon as we have the exact time and place.

Here are some of my favorite pics from the Academy:

Most of these pics are by Douglas Robar. More pics from the Academy here.

Tim Dorsett: Top 10 Tips from Innocent Drinks

Last week we had our annual conference on happiness at work and it went insanely well.

As always we will share the speeches online and here’s the first one. Tim Dorsett works at Innocent Drinks. His titel is Office MANgel and his job is to make sure that people at Innocent Drinks do great work and go home happy.

In his inspiring presentation he shares the top 10 things he’s done to make sure that happen.