“Choose a job you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life,” Confucius declared. Admittedly, even the great Chinese philosopher might have found some modern jobs hard to love; increasingly, however, employers across the UK are discovering that there is sound business sense behind fostering a culture of joy in every workplace. 

A study by Warwick University has shown happiness makes people around 12 per cent more productive. Conversely, the annual cost to the UK of sickness from mental ill-health is £8.1 billion. “Any business leader with an ounce of savviness knows that if you look after the wellbeing of your staff, that’s going to have a tangible effect in terms of profitability and productivity,” says Karen Blackett, the chairwoman of MediaCom UK.

Consequently, the sort of staff perks that would once have raised eyebrows anywhere outside Silicon Valley – games rooms, free food, yoga classes – are now widespread. In 2014, Richard Branson made headlines when he announced that Virgin staff would be allowed to take unlimited holiday leave. In the same year, Nestlé decided that all its employees could bring their dogs to work every day. Google, which employs a chief happiness officer, has seen staff satisfaction rise by 37 per cent.

Kate Percival, the CEO of the women’s-only health club Grace Belgravia, has launched the Fit for Business, Fit for Life awards campaign to recognise the organisations committed to supporting the health and wellbeing of their staff. “There is a lot of rhetoric but not a lot of action on health and wellbeing in the office,” Percival explains. “In my second business, we had the idea for a communal lunch every Friday, but I think it only happened once. These awards are really about how committed a company is to making the workplace a pleasant place to be.”

The difficulty is that, once basic requirements have been met, happiness is essentially a subjective concept. Here at Bazaar, for instance, I love Fridays because dogs are allowed to come to the office – even though I’ve never actually dared to bring my own erratic greyhound into the building. However, for Shira Suveyke, the executive vice-president at the Outnet, it’s about what she wears to work: “As we are based in a creative and dynamic office, there’s a passion for what we wear and what our customers will get excited about, and you can’t help but get caught up in the momentum. I wear more colour and print – it feels fun and is definitely attention-grabbing.”

“The important thing is to consult your staff and find out what they want,” says the happiness consultant Samantha Clarke, who conducts ‘happiness health checks’ for the businesses she works with – increasingly, financial and legal companies, that are struggling to hold on to female staff disenchanted with traditional working structures after having children. Often, she says, what increases employee happiness is simply more flexibility in the workplace.

When Karen Blackett began her career in media in the early 1990s, she describes the culture as having been: “work hard, play hard. It wasn’t family-friendly, and conversations would happen in the pub or on the golf course, which as a woman, you wouldn’t necessarily be part of.”

Now, with about a third of media agencies run by women, the balance has shifted. “How we work has changed, the family unit has changed and we do think more about how people are able to fulfil their personal and professional lives. And that involves more than money and benefits.” Blackett regularly entertains her clients with their families at Legoland, while innovations to promote staff wellbeing have included funding gym memberships; allowing an ‘Inspiration’ day off every month to pursue a personal passion; office life coaching and mindfulness training; and an in-house bar. (She is also an ambassador for the Grace Belgravia awards.)

Last September, she launched a new initiative, ‘Project Blend’, in which employees were encouraged to view their personal goals (such as exercising daily, or leaving in time to do the school pick-up) as key performance indicators alongside their work targets, all to be evaluated with their line manager. “I get a much happier, more loyal employee if you feel I understand your life as well as your work,” she says. And by the time this is published, Blackett will be away on a three-month sabbatical, touring the US with her young son Isaac. She admits to some nerves about being out of contact. “But I’ve got to be seen to walk the walk. And in order to be an effective leader, you’ve got to look after yourself: you’ve got to be mentally fit as well as physically fit. I do want to be a great businesswoman as well as a great mum – but I don’t want to lean in so much that I fall over.”

The women-only health club Grace Belgravia has launched its inaugural Fit for Business, Fit for Life Awards, which promote physical and mental wellbeing in the world of work. Open to businesses from any sector and judged in partnership with the leading occupational psychologist Dr Bridget Juniper, the scheme will offer all competition entrants valuable insight into the impact of their working practices on employee wellbeing. For a copy of competition guidelines, requirements and prices, please email awards@gracebelgravia.com by 16th September 2016.

By Lydia Slater, as published in Harpers Bazaar on 4th July 2016

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