On happiness at work

But you know, as a leader, my main responsibility is to bring profit to my shareholders, not to look at things like compassion or the happiness of my employees. That’s their personal matter.

– There’s extensive research to show that happier employees benefit their organisation. 

– Progressive leaders care about the triple bottom line – people, planet and profit. Leaders have a powerful opportunity to positively affect many lives so if you look at the welfare of all your stakeholders, and not just your shareholders, you are working to build a more progressive and sustainable business. It requires a long-term mentality because in the short term, it may cost more to make some changes. Have a look at this example. 

– I also believe there’s no such thing as “personal matter”. Our lives are all interconnected. Here’s an illustration. Life may not be as direct as this of course.

Consider one of your employees who has been treated well at work and is happily driving home. He is present and mindful and driving safely.  He passes your son or daughter on the road, who’s also driving. He gives way, and is kind.

If, however, he’s been overworked, stressed and under-appreciated at work, he may drive home feeling stressed, upset and distracted or even taking yet another work call on his cellphone.  If he’s on the road and your son or daughter is also driving, he’s more likely to be a danger to the safety of your child.

At the end of your life, what is the legacy you want to have left behind? On your deathbed, what matters most, according to people who have worked with dying people, is how much love you have given and received, and how much service you have rendered.

(This is part of an interview I did with Matthieu Ricard. These are my thoughts to the questions I posed to him. Please click here for his responses. )

Workplace Happiness, Job Satisfaction and Engagement

As a workplace happiness consultant, I am sometimes asked about employee engagement. One person asked why I didn’t use the word “engagement” instead of happiness since it was more well known and also less “fuzzy” than happiness.

Well, because both concepts (along with job satisfaction) are different.

Here’s a document from iOpener on the difference between workplace happiness and employee engagement:

Happiness at work, job satisfaction & engagement

And here’s a video of Jessica Pryce Jones from iOpener, speaking on the same.

In short, an employee can have high engagement and job satisfaction and yet not be happy (and want to leave or not be very productive), while a happy employee will have high engagement and job satisfaction.

Letter: Workplace Happiness

A firm’s corporate social responsibility starts with treating workers well
Published on Apr 3, 2012 in the Forum Page, The Straits Times, Singapore.
I AGREE with Mr Tang Li that when employees are treated better, the company benefits (‘Treat workers properly’; last Tuesday).

I was also heartened that Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said: ‘We can only be an inclusive society if employers treat their workers with respect, help them develop themselves, and reward them fairly.’ (‘An inclusive S’pore: ‘Firms must play role”; March 21).

Here are some numbers related to the value of workplace happiness:

In one study, happy employees have, on average, 31 per cent higher productivity; their sales increase 37 per cent, and their creativity is three times better.

Research also shows that happier employees lead to improved workplace relationships, higher retention and less sick leave.

Books such as The Customer Comes Second by Hal Rosenthal illustrate how happier employees provide better customer service as well.

A side benefit of workplace happiness is that people who are happier are healthier, relieving the medical system.

And if one is treated well at work, one is likelier to treat family members better when one gets home.

So addressing happiness in the workplace has huge positive ripple effects for society.

Let us contrast the above with another set of numbers:

In a poll last year by a talent management agency, Singapore was ranked last in workplace happiness among 14 countries.

In another, Singapore placed second in a survey of 16 countries for the number of workplace gripes.

It is useful to note that corporate social responsibility, which is gaining traction in Singapore, starts with how an organisation treats its employees, contract workers, suppliers and customers, as well as the communities, environment and animals affected by its work.

I am heartened to read of the company practices that Mr Tharman mentioned in his speech. We must keep highlighting and encouraging more such good practices.

Ultimately, it is vital to have happier and more conscientious bosses who can then serve as role models, and will be more drawn towards creating work environments that encourage employee happiness.

Employees must do their part as well; each can be a catalyst for happiness at work.

Vadivu Govind (Ms)

Video: Validation

Validation is an inspiring and creative video on what happens when we see clearly and share with people about what’s beautiful and good about them.

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” ~ Leo Buscaglia

Video: Inner Work and the Life of a Teacher

“My life is my message” ~ Gandhi

This video captures what I hold very dear…that the inner work of teachers (and by that I mean all who are in a position to educate and facilitate the transformation of others) affects their contribution in the world.

In this video, kindergarten teacher Dr. Debbie Dewitt says, “I teach who I am”. She asks, “Are the children happy? Are they whole? Am I happy? Am I whole?”

If more teachers, leaders, parents and others in the helping professions were aligned with such thinking, I believe we’d see a supremely more powerful positive transformation in the world.

One of the greatest inihibitors of such a difference is when we try to help others without doing sufficient inner work. I did that for many years as a social change advocate and count that as one of my biggest mistakes and am thankful I am more conscious of this now.

Learn more at the website of the Center for Courage and Renewal.

Cooking with Love

I was in Kuala Lumpur a few months ago, being trained to become a facilitator for The Transformation Game, a board game focusing on self development. There were six of us and the training was held in an apartment. The organisers had kindly arranged for our meals to be catered in.

I didn’t really expect what we got. It tasted like gourmet food. And each day I saw Ong Beng Chung, one of the owners of the restaurant come in personally, plate the food, lovingly top them with garnishing and walk out quietly while we were in training.

Beng Chung lovingly preparing our food

I also learned that he hadn’t created vegan food before but had taken on the challenge of doing it for me.

These hand-written notes from Beng Chung about our food were another way in which we experienced his care and warmth.

I was intrigued. Who was this man who would drive a long distance to cater food for six people with so much care?

So when we visited his restaurant, Zest Cafe, at Bangsar, we had a little chat.

Beng Chung had been in the corporate sector for 19 years before starting this restaurant venture. Four to five years of deep personal transformation planted seeds for Beng Chung’s professional transformation.  I enjoyed witnessing how the inner work he had done was manifested at the restaurant. I witnessed care, appreciation, authentic connection, humour, a real sense of joy in creating a space for people to connect and grow in.

Here are some highlights from our chat….

Food as a connector

I love to entertain people at my house so much so that my friends call my house a “coffeeshop”.  I find it very joyful to prepare food…I like it when people come, eat and talk together when we’re stressed out at work.

His vision for what he would like the restaurant to be…

~ I would like it to be a “social business”. A social business is where the investors themselves don’t just enrich themselves financially. They use wealth to enrich others, first their staff then the neighbourhood….for example, we buy our staff rice…

~ I want to make this a place where people can pursue their hobbies. I am trying to work with a photographer friend on how I can hold a photo-contest for example.

~ We serve nutritious food as much as possible.

Turning points

I was in sales, in the corporate sector for 19 years. Four years ago, the thought started that I can do more… something that is more related to touching humans. So I initially thought of running a retirement home. This was the time when my mum got into a stroke. But I took no action for three years. Then we thought of doing something all of us liked but then it took me another two years.

So I didn’t have a  sudden transformation. It was gradual…I moved away from the limitations I had set for myself. Many things happened in 2005. My mum had a stroke. I was in my late thirties and knew something needed to be done but did not know what….Now I see alot of possibilities.

About the day he was signing the tenancy agreement for the restaurant

I remember the day when I went to sign the contract…I still had fear…then I did the Ho’oponopono …I did it all the way from my office. Then my mood changed. I was signing with joy! I only realised the change after the incident happened on my way back to the office..

(Note: Ho’oponopono is a Hawaiian practice marked by four phrases- “I love you. I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you.”)

What he wants customers to feel when they leave

Refreshed. Quite a lot of my customers come from the office and I see them rushing through. I tell them, “Don’t rush. enjoy your meal…”

Having been in the corporate sector for almost 20 years, Beng Chung's "Don't rush. Enjoy your meal" to rushing customers seems especially heartfelt.

On my observation that he seems to love people and that the food is secondary

In marketing, there is a word called “touchpoint” which is where a business connects with the customer. To me food is another touchpoint in my interaction with people.


I noticed Beng Chung sit next to children and speak playfully to them. He carried one. A few customers spoke to him when they were leaving. He noticed I was really hungry so got me some bread before the food arrived. I felt like I was in someone’s house, instead of a restaurant.

He said, “When people go to your house, you entertain your guests. I don’t call them “customers”. I call them guests.”

Beng Chung offered extraordinary service…there was a sense of intimacy, authenticity and a kind of heartful and soulful offering that honoured us as important and worthy of being cared for so well.

Beng Chung found his touchpoint in food. What’s yours? What could you create with love and authenticity?



You don’t get the best ideas in front of the PC!”

I just lit up when Angela Koch of Invitro Innovation said this. It certainly looks like we’re productive when we sit for long hours in front of the computer. I used to think so and feel guilty when I was away from my computer till I started getting great ideas when I was away traveling/reading/relaxing/walking etc. You could call it play time because it certainly doesn’t look like work! We need a paradigm shift to identify where magic happens for work.

Angela Koch, sharing her ideas, which she has captured visually on her ipad.

Angela is an innovation consultant and this is what we spoke about. We often think play is the opposite of work, Angela says, when in fact, they go together. We also leave play behind in childhood when play is necessary, she says. Here are some highlights from our chat….

Why is play important at work?

Angela believes that play is linked with the ability to be creative and innovate. Angela says some companies are “engineered for misery”, for robots which have no emotion or creativity; where relationships don’t flourish.

What kind of culture allows for play? One with trust. People feel diminished when they are watched over closely and “put on a short leash” and managers are quick to point out when they have made mistakes. Companies that get it right treat each employee as an individual.

In play-restricting and trust-lacking cultures, no stars are born, according to Angela. People don’t often go beyond the call of duty.

Who are the stars at your workplace waiting to be unleashed to play, dream and create something extraordinary? (FableVision artwork on this website copyright by Peter H. Reynolds, www.fablevisionlearning.com)

A Question for Leaders by Angela – Is my company helping people be the best they can be? Or are we working against people?

What does play at work look like? How can one practise it? Here are some tips from Angela…

–        How do you relate to others during breaks? Jokes and banter help relax people. You have a choice in how you interact with people.

–        Use lunch-breaks to restore and bring balance back.  If you’ve had a busy morning, you could have some peace and tranquility during lunch.  If you’ve had a quiet morning, why not jazz it up during lunch? Connect more with people.

–        Use the Creative Whack Pack (I love this too!) which is available as cards and also as an app.  Innovation tools says, “The Creative Whack Pack is still the most impressive brainstorming tool in the AppStore, hands down.”

The Creative Whack Pack

–        Experiment with Lego as a brainstorming and creativity tool. Angela recommends it as a prototyping tool as well. Here’s an example of how it’s used in the workplace.

–        Introduce some randomness by rolling dice for certain activities. Try Story Cubes.

Throw a cube. Get an idea. Tell a story.

–        Have an inspiration wall/whiteboard at the office for people to share inspiring ideas. She introduced me to IdeaPaint – interesting..and environmentally-friendly…

IdeaPaint makes walls come alive. (Image credit: IdeaPaint)

–        Allow for people to be silly and for distractions (when you can). Angela says: “Detours may get you to your destination faster!” Sometimes in very outcome-oriented settings, there’s little room for deviation.

How do you practise this idea of play at work?

Angela shared this photo of an inspirational wall she’s created at home where she works from. She doodles on it, puts up inspiring ideas, allows visitors to draw on it etc.

Angela's walls speak!


IdeaPaint at home (Image credit: IdeaPaint)

Angela also doodles on her ipad.  (If you’re not an ipad user like me, simple sketch-pad and coloured markers work!!)

What resources do you recommend?

TED talk by Tim Brown

“Beyond Love and Work: Why Adults Need to Play” by Lenore Terr.

Inspiring offices designed for play:

10 seeeeeriosly cool workplaces – tons of great pictures to give you ideas

Innovation firm, IDEO’s office

Scrabble inspired bench

Thanks to Angela for sharing her ideas with me!

PS: I love Angela’s idea of using lunch-breaks to restore balance. So if you’ve had a noisy morning, a quiet and restorative break could help. My personal tip is that if there’s a park or place of workship near your office, why not step in for a while and sit and enjoy the peace or say a prayer. It could really shift the rest of the day to new heights.

PPS: IdeaPaint is sold in Singapore by Prospec Surfaces.  Alan Lee – (65)-67777 888 ext.29

alan[at] prospecsurfaces.com






Video: Undercover Boss

Imagine what would happen if leaders went undercover in their own organisations with the intention of finding out what REALLY happens.

That’s what happens on “Undercover Boss”, a reality TV show in which bosses pretend to be entry-level/front-line staff in their own companies. It’s an exercise in empathy, appreciation and truth-seeking and truth-speaking, all of which I believe are important for leadership. (Yes, I admit that people behave differently when the camera is in front of them but don’t let the imperfections prevent you from appreciating the essence of this show.)

The bosses discover the difficulties faced, the strengths with which their staff members handle them, extraordinary service, family/personal challenges faced by staff as well as behaviours that lack integrity.

Watch this, and encourage your boss to....:)

I wonder how CEOs and other leaders in Singapore would be transformed if they became construction workers, salespeople, cleaners etc for a day…

I wonder how they would feel seeing the level of alignment between their company’s vision/mission/values statement and what is practised. Or between their own spiritual values and what is practised.

How much Truth do you/your leaders expose themselves to? (Thanks to Delta7 for creating these images for everyone to use!)

Literally going undercover may not be practical in many circumstances but there could be variations to it. They could:

Make surprise visits or ensure that a trusted team does surprise visits/inspections etc.

~ Become a mystery shopper.

~ Surround themselves with people who are courageous enough to speak the truth about them or the impact of their decisions on the ground.

~ Visit “Dialogue in the Dark” in Singapore, an experiential activity in empathy. Extend the learning from that to empathy in the workplaces or other areas of life.

~ Learn about leadership styles which emphasise self-awareness and self-reflection, and the impact of one’s actions on others. A few books that handle this in different ways are “A Hidden Wholeness” by Parker Palmer,  “The Leaders Way” by the Dalai Lama and international management consultant Laurens van den Muyzenberg and “Heroic Leadership” by Chris Lowney on the Jesuits.

~ Be guided by role-models who emphasises pursuit of Truth, integrity and listening to one’s conscience.

~ Slow down and really observe yourself. At the end of each day, reflect on  where you appreciate yourself, where you could have done better etc.

~ Slow down and really observe people. Master the art of spotting people’s strengths and positive actions and appreciating them meaningfully (which may not necessarily involve expensive gifts like sometimes it does on “Undercover Boss”). Here’s a useful resource on spotting people’s strengths.

What are other ways that leaders could seek and witness truth and experience empathy? How could you implement any of these ideas where you work?

I believe we are ALL leaders so although this post is aimed at formal leaders, if we all embraced truth, empathy and appreciation in our lives, we would see our world flourish sooner.

Catch “Undercover Boss” on Sundays at 10pm on Channel 5 in Singapore or watch clips on you tube. Here are a few clips:

CEO discovers safety hazards.

CEO reveals identity and rewards staff.