I'm not sure I totally agree with The Economist's stated suspicion for "happy-clappy progressive management theory". This article seems to confuse sales focused initiatives at places like Pret and Virgin Atlantic with initiatives that employers take among their wider workforce aimed at spreading wellbeing and contentment. The author accepts of the sales based initiatives that "most people prefer their service with a smile rather than a snarl" and customer facing employees surely understand that?
The broader wellbeing or contentment initiatives need to be given time to flourish. Of course, it's easy to ridicule some of these initiatives, particularly if they involve a 'happiness owl' or an in-house 'jolly good fellow'. But how much of this is just about the language being used? I remember reading light hearted articles for example about whether serious organisations needed a 'Chief Information Officer'.
The underlying truth is very simple and we all know it. For the last decade or more I have asked groups of leaders and workers across the world "what do happy people do?" The answer is a remarkably consistent "They work harder." Gallup has produced much straightforward research to show this. They don't as the author suggests rely on a 'vague metric', rather they have hundreds of thousands (millions?) of answers to their Q12 questions - consistently asked and answered among clients who use Gallup's surveys. The way employees answer those questions places them in one of three buckets: engaged, not engaged and actively disengaged. All Gallup do is cut this big data - showing for example what the workforce in their 'genuinely world class' clients look like in terms of its percentage of engaged/non-engaged etc as opposed to those performing averagely. It's compelling stuff.
The point that the article hints at and I think needs stressing is that wellbeing or contentment initiatives won't be trusted by employees if the employer is one that does not properly respect its employees. It's been suggested to me more that once by employees that, for example an employer who at the first sign of negative results hands out black bin liners to staff selected for redundancy would not be properly trusted on wellbeing. An employer who is going to make this sort of thing work is probably an employer whose employees genuinely feel that it is deserving of their trust.