National

Japanese firms needs to boost worker happiness to survive, well-being expert says

by Shusuke Murai

Staff Writer

Feeling blue at work? According to Keio University professor Takashi Maeno, there are science-backed reasons explaining why workers may feel so distressed.

Maeno, the dean of the Graduate School of System Design and Management at the university, has used a scientific approach to study psychological well-being. He said modern research has made it possible to learn about what conditions help people feel happy and how to improve workplace happiness.

“Since around the 1980s, researchers have discovered statistical methods to measure people’s level of happiness,” he said during a recent interview with The Japan Times.

Maeno is among Japan’s pioneers in well-being studies. He has advised the government about raising productivity and promoting innovation at companies.

Despite increasing awareness about employee happiness among Western companies, particularly in the IT sector, Japanese firms have been slow to adopt reforms, Maeno said, adding that a key for growth is making people happier.

A professor of mechanical engineering, Maeno once developed algorithms to create artificial emotions that let robots appear to express human-like joy and laughter. But he realized that making people happy is more important for society than creating robots that just look happy.

In his 2013 book “Shiawase no Mechanism” (“Mechanism of Well-Being”), Maeno explains how to measure happiness.

In an online survey, Maeno asked 87 questions regarding psychological well-being. He then analyzed answers from 1,500 Japanese respondents, using a statistical approach to find out what kind of characteristics happy people have in common.

As a result, he found that people tend to feel happy when four factors are fulfilled at high levels: Self-realization and growth, connection and gratitude, a sense of optimism, and independence.

The first factor is related to the ability to realize strengths and enjoy opportunities to exert and develop them. The second is about whether people are surrounded by a diverse group and have opportunities to feel appreciated for what they do. The third covers feelings of confidence in having control over situations and the ability to quickly recover from setbacks. The fourth is about the likelihood of people comparing themselves to others. Those who are less likely to worry about what others think tend to be happier, according to the findings.

Considering the factors, which Maeno calls “the four leaves of a lucky clover,” he said the typical hierarchical, top-down corporate culture only creates unhappy workers.

Although Japan boasts the world’s third-largest economy, its population is known to be less happy compared with other advanced countries.

The United Nation’s World Happiness Report 2017, released in March, ranked Japan No. 51 among 155 countries — behind advanced nations such as the United States (14), Germany (16) and France (31). Japan was also ranked lower than some developing economies, including Mexico (25) and Taiwan (33).

The U.N. survey asked respondents to rate their lives on a scale of 0 to 10 regarding conditions such as how much social support they had available, how much freedom they had in making life choices, feelings about corruption in their society and about their own generosity. The survey also covered other factors, such as real gross domestic product per capita and healthy life expectancy. Norway topped the list, followed by Denmark and Iceland.

Maeno said the result of the U.N. survey doesn’t necessarily mean Japanese people are unhappy compared with people in other countries, given that the Japanese tend to give relatively low scores about their feelings of happiness. The method used to gauge happiness for the U.N report differs from the one used in Maeno’s study.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that Japanese society, especially workplaces, can be rather insensitive about happiness, he said.

He said a major problem with many companies is that they are still bound to a traditional, profit-driven corporate model established during the postwar period of high economic growth, when producing a certain product as quickly as possible was key to thriving.

Maeno said the hierarchical system worked fairly well when companies could enjoy promising growth and employees were rewarded with constant salary increases — but as growth slowed, the system’s negative aspects became more conspicuous.

“Employees working at hierarchical organizations often have little autonomy over what they do at work, because they are expected to do only the things ordered by their bosses,” he said.

Also, people working in a top-down system are given few opportunities to expand their network within and outside the company, he added.

But with the economy having undergone a major shift, Maeno said companies need to change the hierarchical culture and seek ways to boost worker happiness if they want to survive.

According to Maeno, companies with happy employees are more sustainable because happy people work more productively and creatively and are more likely to put innovative ideas into practice.

“Studies suggest wealth coming from money and social position doesn’t last long because it requires constant, ever-increasing growth,” he said. “Companies tried to become sustainable by pursuing more profit, believing that would eventually make people happy. But ironically, what people have done was quite the opposite.”

To improve labor productivity, the government is promoting reform initiatives and urging the private sector to take actions such as restricting excessive overtime and allowing flexible work styles.

But Maeno said the fundamental problem that prevents companies from becoming more productive is a lack of measures to boost worker happiness.

“People aren’t bothered by long work hours if they are happy about their jobs,” he said.

With economic growth no longer promising, Maeno said what the nation needs is a movement to make people happier.

“We need to realize we no longer live in the 20th century society, where building a bigger pyramid could make a company the winner,” he said.