The dopamine dividend: in the mood for employee happiness?

Bevan S | HR Network paper 155 | Institute for Employment Studies | Nov 2021

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Psychological wellbeing at work is increasingly being seen as a factor of production or even as a source of competitive advantage in knowledge-based organisations. Employers want engaged, motivated, creative, innovative, cognitively flexible, resilient, committed and fulfilled workers. Yet it is now much clearer that, despite all of these benefits, poor mental health in the workforce can represent a costly disruption to productive capacity and a risk to business sustainability and stability. 

The way that both the theory and practice of managing people at work have evolved in recent years illustrates how some of the complex interactions between mental wellbeing, motivation, engagement and neuroscience have started to become a recognisable part of the managerial ‘toolkit’. This has given rise to a small but growing ‘happiness’ industry in which providers are jostling for position in the race to monitor the mood of the workforce.

Some argue that, with mood tracking apps and wearable devices to capture how we are feeling 24/7, we now have an impressive choice of technologies at our disposal which can help employers and employees monitor, analyse and manage our emotions and mood at work. Each of us can now access personalised support to ensure that we need never be unhappy or disengaged at work again. Others argue that the commodification of our motivations, pleasure hormones and impulses is just one step away from a dystopian vision of work in which surveillance, monitoring and manipulation of our mood become as familiar a business metric as headcount, sickness absence or hours worked.

In this paper we will look at why emotion and mood at work has become such a commodity. We will ask about the science behind the explosion of mood tracking apps and the practical and ethical choices we need to make before we embrace this technology as a mainstream tool for worker wellbeing, engagement and productivity enhancement.