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Tom Calvard

University of Edinburgh Business School

Senior Lecturer in HRM

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Are we burning ourselves out in the pursuit of happiness?


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Dr Thomas Calvard is Lecturer in Human Resource Management. Together with Dr Katherine Sang of Heriot-Watt University, he has published a new paper on positive psychology and employee wellbeing in the International Journal of Human Resource Management.

Today’s world is awash with the idea of wellbeing. Be more mindful, we’re told. Meditate, focus on self-improvement, do regular exercise, eat clean and you’ll be happy.

The neoliberal mantra of more free market and less state provision has become embedded in society. So too has the idea of absolute personal responsibility in the workplace.

The word stress has become conspicuous in its absence, as positive psychology and happiness research has focused on individual resilience.  

Empowering people to take more ownership of their lives and careers not only improves work-life balance, we’re told. But it also reconciles the aims of a happy, healthy workforce with the need for more productivity and competitiveness.

You only have to look to the growth of the multibillion-dollar wellbeing industry to see the appeal of the argument.

Wellness is something we should all aim for and is no bad thing in concept. But the argument has also taken a dark side. The cult of self-improvement masks a worrying shift in the apportioning of responsibility in the workplace.   

How today’s world provoked staff burnout

The march of neoliberalism has brought with it austerity, rapid globalisation and widening income- inequality. All against the backdrop of an elitist financialisation of the economy and society.

Here in the UK, longer working hours, more precarious jobs and intensified performance demands have contributed to a 41% increase in mental health problems. Sports Direct has had its conditions likened to ‘workhouses’.

The gruelling intern culture in the City of London has led to humiliation, exhaustion and even death.  There have been outbreaks of physical violence between Air France workers and their leaders. While in the US, an over-worked Amazon employee attempted to take their own life.

By exclusively focusing on the individual, the current conversation has allowed an environment where it’s okay to shift the onus for workers’ welfare from the employer to the employee.

If you aren’t having a good time at work, you are stressed, over tired or you’re not getting on well with co-workers, it’s your fault. Be more resilient, deal with the challenges and keep smiling, because your wellbeing is no one else’s responsibility other than your own.

Is everyone out for themselves?

Our research suggests the workplace is also an environment in which we pit ourselves against one another to get ahead. Gone are the days of trade unionism and solidarity. You’re on your own.

A toxic work culture is tantamount to violence. It causes actual harm to employees and it is counterproductive. Unhappy, stressed and tired workers are also less productive.

Moreover, abusing workers and ignoring their happiness causes reputational harm and ultimately reduces an organisation’s ability to retain talent.  

Among the hubris around wellbeing, we’ve taken our eyes off the factors that cause harm to people in the workplace.

In our obsession with self-improvement, as a society we’ve given unscrupulous employers a free pass to exploit their workforces. The result? Exhausted, disinterested and ultimately burned-out employees.

Managers must recognise and challenge this, of course, but so should we as workers. Ultimately, it’s in all our interests to make work, work for us all.


4 Responses

  1. I think the crux here is what
    I think the crux here is what the definition of happiness is. I know of plenty of people are fighting the rat race and many others who are happen to just have a pantry full of food in storage, a happy family and a roof over their heads. Not too sure what other solutions we can find to improve our lives except to keep striving for what fulfils us in order to achieve our dreams. That’s the only way onward isn’t it?

  2. Stress is really inevitable
    Stress is really inevitable in today’s highly competitive era that we are living in. Amidst our busy daily schedules, there really isn’t any slot that we could somehow sneak in a relax session. We try to change that lifestyle at our self storage by giving our employees the opportunity to take an extra day off once a month in a rotational basis to encourage self and family time.

  3. Academics Corner: I’m sorry
    Academics Corner: I’m sorry but I thought that academic thought was meant to be objective, thoughtful and in search of the truth and evidence based. ‘The gruelling intern culture in the city’, ‘an overworked Amazon employee’ and an incident with some ‘Air France workers’. Sounds a bit like journalism to me, weaving in some real, tragic but anecdotal stories to bolster an argument which is clearly a political polemic written from a collectivist perspective. There is nothing wrong with having that perspective, we all have our own perspectives, but it is not ‘academic’ . The theory that self-improvement, taking responsibility for managing our own lives (health, wellbeing, mindfulness, positive psychology and work-life balance) some how gives ‘unscrupulous’ employers a free pass is interesting but where is the evidence? The data? We do know, for example, that CBT is very helpful in addressing a number of mental health issues (strongly evidenced and researched) but it doesn’t excuse employers from their responsibilities under Health and Safety legislation and their duty of care. Sports Direct – again plenty of newspaper coverage on this firm – is probably not typical of the many firms who are very interested in supporting their employees with wellness programmes, work life balance and health benefits. There is plenty of protection for employees in the area of stress and stress related illnesses. Having worked in strong unionised environments and non-unionised environments, I can testify that the trade unionism and solidarity does not equate automatically with good welfare practices and good mental health practices. My plea is bring real academic insight and research to this ‘academics corner’ not opinion pieces.

  4. Excellent article, if only to
    Excellent article, if only to highlight the academic workplace that has evolved in the last few years, which for SMEs is a nightmare. A quick glance through the article identifies words and thinking which not only leans a fair bit left………..witness the reference to “elitist financialisation”……..but also means your plumber employing 10 or 15 people and similar businesses simply causes them to shrug their shoulders and hope like Hell the phone keeps ringing with more work.
    In my view, overly academic HR and senior management practices and recommendations are turning what is essentially a straightforward environment into what I refer to above as a nightmare.
    There remains many opportunities to identify why it is that operating a workplace where work criteria a clearly identified and those that get there are helped to go further, and those who don’t are helped to get there but if that proves unattainable they part company…………and send those “experts” who keep identifying all the negatives about work off the help with the famine in Somalia!!
    Cheers. DonR.

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Tom Calvard

Senior Lecturer in HRM

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