Category Archives: Philosophy

Warning: Deep thoughts ahead.

11 government policies that promote happiness at work to give a country a competitive advantage

Discussing public policy in Dubai

Given that happy companies have significant competitive advantages, governments have a strong interest in enacting public policies that promote happiness at work in their country.

But what exactly could a government do to achieve this?

At the World Government Summit in Dubai earlier this month I was part of a panel that discussed how public policy could promote workplace happiness.

We had  a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion and came up with many cool ideas. Some of these may seem radical or weird but many of them are already in place in countries around the world.

Here are 11 ideas I would suggest:

1: Regulate and inspect psychological workplace safety

Pretty much every country has a government agency that sets requirements for physical workplace safety and sends out inspectors to visit e.g. factories and construction sites to make sure that the correct safety equipment is being used and that workers are following safety regulations.

So why not do the same for psychological workplace safety?

In the Scandinavian countries, this is actually in place. The Working Environment Authorities conduct inspections in cases where they suspect that working conditions are psychologically unsafe. They inspect things like:

  • Amount of work and time pressure
  • High emotional costs of labor
  • Bullying and sexual harassment
  • Contradictory or unclear work requirements

If they find that the workplace is psychologically unsafe they can issue orders that the company must follow. In serious cases they can even issue fines.

Breaking a leg because you trip over something at work is painful and can take a long time to heal. But make no mistake about it: being bullied by your boss or working under constant stress can affect your mental and physical health just as severely.

Therefore it makes perfect sense to mandate standards for psychological workplace safety and inspect workplaces to make sure they’re followed.

2: Regulate against permanent overwork

In Denmark, we have laws protecting employees from permanent overwork. The result is that Danes tend to leave work at a reasonable hour most days, and they also get five to six weeks of vacation per year, several national holidays and up to a year of paid maternity/paternity leave. While the average American works 1,790 hours per year, the average Dane only works 1,450.

Even Japan where the culture of overwork is so rampant that they have a word called karoshi that means death from overwork, is trying to enact similar laws:

The law, introduced as a response to the social problem that has been serious since the late 1980s, makes it the state’s responsibility to take steps to prevent death from overwork. It calls on the government to study the situation of heavy workloads that impair the health of company workers and lead them to take their own life.

Protecting employees from permanent overwork makes them happier and more productive.

3: Mandate employee representation on board of directors

Here’s another idea from Scandinavia – give employees representation on the board of directors:

Employees in Danish companies employing 35 employees or more, are entitled to elect a number of representatives to the board of directors. The number elected by employees should correspond to half the number elected by those who own the company at the general meeting, and should be at least two.

Crucially these employee representatives are not mere observers – they have all the same powers and responsibilities as the “regular” board members.

This means that employees are informed about and have influence on major strategic decisions.

4: Make government workplaces role models

I would love to see governments take a leading role by making public sector workplaces among the best in the country.

Sadly, the public sector usually has a bit of an inferiority complex. Since they usually can’t offer the same salaries, perks and incentives as private sector workplaces, they feel that they can’t be as good workplaces.

However, it turns out that those factors matter very little for workplace happiness, as long as they’re fair. However, public sector workplaces have a huge potential for being happy because they can offer something that many private workplaces struggle to give their employees: Meaningful work.

Public organizations almost by definition work for an important purpose. Schools educate children, hospitals heal the sick, city planners create better and more liveable cities - even the garbage men play a huge role in making people’s lives easier and better.

By contrast, let’s say  you work in an ad agency. The end result of your hard work might be that some company somewhere sells a fraction more detergent. Is that really meaningful to you?

If public sector workplaces would take the lead on offering their employees things like meaningful work, great leadership, good working conditions, work/life balance, professional development and employee empowerment they could serve as role models for all workplaces.

5: Promote lifelong learning

When a government makes education available cheap or free to its citizens, there is a much bigger chance that they get to realize their full potential and become happy at work.

And this should not be limited to young people. Lifelong learning should make it easy and affordable for anyone to upgrade their skills so they can get different or more interesting work.

6: Require companies to measure and report on employee happiness

Pretty much all countries require strict financial reporting from companies.

So why not require companies to measure and report on employee happiness?

7: Require all government suppliers to be certified happy workplaces

The government of any nation buys huge amounts of goods and services from private sector companies.

No government should knowingly buy from a company that used slave labor or child labor or polluted the environment.

So why not require that all government suppliers be good workplaces?

8: Don’t hobble trade unions

Trade unions have a somewhat mixed reputation and can fall victim to corruption or cronyism.

However, on the whole it is clear from the research that collective bargaining is a powerful tool to improve working conditions not just for union members but for all workers in many areas including compensation, vacation time, maternity/paternity leave and workplace safety.

Employers and lobbyists in some countries are trying to restrict unions, making it easier for employers to keep costs low. If a government protects workers’ rights to organize, the result is better working conditions and happier workplaces.

9: Celebrate the best workplaces

Several private companies conduct surveys to find the best workplaces in different countries, but these rankings are always limited to those workplaces that pay to be included. This limits their usefulness.

So why not let the state publish a ranking of the best workplaces in the country?

10: Make unemployment benefits widely available and liveable

When unemployment benefits are too low to live on or too hard to obtain, employees are locked in to their jobs, because leaving a bad workplace could have disastrous financial consequences.

However, when unemployment benefits support a decent standard of living and are available also to people who quit a job, getting away from a toxic workplace is much easier.

11: Make bad workplaces and managers legally responsible for the harm they cause

If a workplace is run in a way that systematically harms its employees mental health, causing stress and depression, it should be possible to hold the leadership of that company legally accountable.

We already do this for workplaces that don’t live up to physical workplace safety regulations – serious violations can lead to fines or even jail time for the managers responsible.

I think it makes perfect sense to do the same for companies or managers that harm their employees mental health.

The point

Any government has an interest in enacting public policies that strengthen the competitive advantage of companies in that country.

However, this is often done by cutting corporate taxes, deregulation or corporate subsidies – none of which have much of a track record of success.

If a government is truly serious about giving companies a sustained, strong competitive advantage, they should really focus on policies that create happier workplaces.

This would not only be good for the companies and the employees, it would also be good for the national economy, as it would boost national productivity and reduce absenteeism, stress and related healthcare costs.

Shouldn’t your country have a happiness minister?


The UAE’s minister for happiness opens the conference.

I am back from Dubai where I spent 3 days at the World Government Summit along with 4,000 other delegates.

One theme running through the entire event was how government policies can further the happiness of citizens. I was invited to participate as an expert in happiness at work.

And the event was REALLY fascinating. They had many of the biggest names in the field come and speak, including Ed Diener, Sir Richard Layard, Jeffrey Sachs and the prime minister of Bhutan where they have been focusing the country’s development on happiness for the last 15-20 years.

Here I am with Sir Richard Layard:

The closing speakers were the economist Joseph Stiglitz and Elon Musk.

I am hugely impressed with the scope of the event and also with the consistent focus on how governments can focus on the wellbeing of their citizens, rather than just on economic growth. I think this is a fascinating vision for the future of public policy making.

And the two are not the same. It is entirely possible to create economic growth in a way that does not make people any happier. Here is a graph showing how GDP per capita grew consistently over a 30-year period in the UK while life satisfaction stayed flat:

So shouldn’t your country have a happiness minister? I wish mine did!

Selling by giving

PresentI was asked by Paul Thornton to contribute to a booklet he’s writing called How to Succeed in Today’s Business World. Paul wanted to know the best piece of business advice I’ve ever received.

This is what I submitted:
One day, quite by accident, I found an article on the internet by some crazy Lithuanian guy called Andrius Kulikauskas. As if his name wasn’t strange enough in itself, the article examines what it would mean to give everything away.

The premise of the article was this:

I accept the idea that I should give everything away.

The challenge is to put this into practice. This is a design problem for personal life and social economy. We can venture attempts and draw experience from them.

My intent is to clarify the problem and offer solutions, especially by documenting ideas that have proven helpful in giving everything away.

This sparked the idea of selling through giving, and that has been the single most efficient and fun sales tool I have ever tried. In every single sales situation I face, I ask myself this question: What can I give?

It’s clear that I can’t give everything away. I couldn’t make a living if I did.

But I repeatedly and reliably find that the more I give away, the more I get back. That my sales results are directly proportional to my generosity.

Not to mention the fact that approaching any situation with an intent to give is much more fulfilling, natural and fun, making “selling by giving” not only more efficient but also more – dare I say it – giving.

Quote

QuoteYou can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird… So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing — that’s what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.
– Richard Feynman

Dangerous ideas

What is your dangerous idea?

The brilliant minds of The Edge community have been pondering that question and have come up with no less than 117 essays.

Here are a few of my favourites:
Carolyn Porco: The greatest story ever told.

At the heart of every scientific inquiry is a deep spiritual quest – to grasp, to know, to feel connected through an understanding of the secrets of the natural world, to have a sense of one’s part in the greater whole.

And we don’t have one god, we have many of them. We find gods in the nucleus of every atom, in the structure of space/time, in the counter-intuitive mechanisms of electromagneticsm. What richness! What consummate beauty!

These are reasons enough for jubilation … for riotous, unrestrained, exuberant merry-making.

So what are we missing?

Ceremony.

We have no loving ministers, guiding and teaching the flocks in the ways of the ‘gods’. We have no fervent missionaries, no loyal apostles. And we lack the all-inclusive ecumenical embrace, the extended invitation to the unwashed masses. Alienation does not warm the heart; communion does.

But what if? What if we appropriated the craft, the artistry, the methods of formal religion to get the message across? Imagine ‘Einstein’s Witnesses’ going door to door or TV evangelists passionately espousing the beauty of evolution.

Could it work? Could we create institutions that filled the roles of religion but which were based on science rather than faith? That is one hell of a dangerous idea. Not to mention weird and wonderful.

Philip Zimbardo: The banality of evil is matched by the banality of heroism

This view implies that any of us could as easily become heroes as perpetrators of evil depending on how we are impacted by situational forces. We then want to discover how to limit, constrain, and prevent those situational and systemic forces that propel some of us toward social pathology.

It is equally important for our society to foster the heroic imagination in our citizens by conveying the message that anyone is a hero-in-waiting who will be counted upon to do the right thing when the time comes to make the heroic decision to act to help or to act to prevent harm.

This is a wonderful shift in thinking: Rather than thinking of people as potential nazis or executioners (common thinking has it, that under the right circumstances all of us could become either), think of people as potential heroes and foster that potential.

Simon Baron-Cohen: A political system based on empathy

What would it be like if our political chambers were based on the principles of empathizing? It is dangerous because it would mean a revolution in how we choose our politicians, how our political chambers govern, and how our politicians think and behave. We have never given such an alternative political process a chance. Might it be better and safer than what we currently have? Since empathy is about keeping in mind the thoughts and feelings of other people (not just your own), and being sensitive to another person’s thoughts and feelings (not just riding rough-shod over them), it is clearly incompatible with notions of “doing battle with the opposition” and “defeating the opposition” in order to win and hold on to power.

Yes! I think more and more these days on how to create a better way of politics. This is an important insight.

Also check out last year’s question: “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?”

Quote

So, I’m saying, “This I believe: I believe there is no God.”

Having taken that step, it informs every moment of my life. I’m not greedy. I have love, blue skies, rainbows and Hallmark cards, and that has to be enough. It has to be enough, but it’s everything in the world and everything in the world is plenty for me. It seems just rude to beg the invisible for more. Just the love of my family that raised me and the family I’m raising now is enough that I don’t need heaven. I won the huge genetic lottery and I get joy every day.

Believing there’s no God means I can’t really be forgiven except by kindness and faulty memories. That’s good; it makes me want to be more thoughtful. I have to try to treat people right the first time around.

– Penn Jillette

This I believe too. Read the rest of it here.

Quote

Love, forgiveness, people often view as part of religion. But this is a mistake. These are true humanity, had at birth by all, while religion comes much later and is part of culture. They are different. Religious faith, utilized properly, strengthens these human values. Those who claim to be religious, but are without these values, are not truly religious.

– Dalai Lama

Via Pharyngula, an excellent blog mostly about evolution.

Design and paradox

Another person I met at the WorldBlu Forum is Ralf Beuker of Design Management. He spoke on design thinking and on the value of embracing paradox. This is a recurring theme on my blog – here are a few examples:

The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.
– Niels Bohr

The test of a first class mind is the ability to hold two opposing views in the head at the same time and still retain the ability to function.
– F. Scott Fitzgerald

Change that is deeply effective and positive presents a paradoxical challenge. On the one hand, there needs to be an appreciation and acceptance of how things are in the here and now. On the other hand, there needs to be an active intention to make things better. Nothing needs to change, and everything can improve. This is the way to avoid the two extremist traps of activist’s frustration or pessimistic complacency.
– Patch Adams

Embracing paradox is crucial. Too much thinking these days (especially in business) aims to reduce and simplify a worldview to the point where decision making becomes easy – and that’s just not the way the world works :o)