Down at Work? Maybe There's an App for That


If you’ve got the Monday-morning blues, there’s a fair chance your boss is onto it. How? Take a look at your wrist, your “smart shirt” or the mood tablet by the front door.

Illustration by Johnson Andrew

We’re all getting a bit app-happy these days. We have happiness apps on fitness trackers, on smart phones, on the new Apple Watch and soon we’ll be wearing mood monitors a little closer to our chests with companies working on mood bras, “smart” polo shirts and other wearable pieces of technology.

In this narcissistic age, we love tracking how we feel through the day. We even share our mood diaries with our friends. (And don’t our friends look forward to that link.)

But we’re not the only ones interested in our happiness. Studies by the Gallup polling group have shown that the 16 per cent of employees who are not happy at work in Australia cost the country a whopping $55 billion in lost productivity. The quest for happy (and motivated) people has prompted governments to devise gross national happiness indexes and led to an avalanche of wellbeing books. Even the dismal science of economics now has a stream called happiness economics.

It’s a no-brainer that companies are keen to have happy workers. Modern corporations rely on ideas, connectivity, networks and teamwork, and they in turn depend on people being lively, receptive and social – all hard to pull off if you’re in a bad mood.

Google, which has been voted the best company to work for in the US six times by Fortune magazine and the Great Place to Work Institute, takes an analytics approach to keep the buzz at work. Its offices typically have nap pods, vegie gardens, cubbyhouses, hammocks, bikes and scooters and it analyses every perk continually to judge what works and what doesn’t.

European logistics firm Kuehne + Nagel helped its staff with tax returns and debt problems when it discovered how much these worries weighed on people. Sony Singapore has go-karting sessions. American Express has employed happiness coaches. And some companies bring in a massage table every Friday.

The IT start-up Atlassian was voted best place for employees last year in a national survey conducted by Great Place to Work Australia. This was partly for its boutique beer fridge, play days, hammocks and movie nights but mostly for its values of welcomeness, trust and safety. It also developed MoodApp, which is loaded onto a tablet and placed at the door. Staff press it on their way out to indicate how they’re feeling.

And this is where we’re heading. Companies want to tap into our propensity for over-sharing, which means they want data from the happiness-measuring tools that we’re strapping to our wrists.

This year, according to research firm Canalys, 23 million activity-tracking wristbands are expected to be sold. Within three years it’s estimated by ABI Research that more than 13 million similar devices will be integrated into corporate wellness programs globally. Companies will supply gadgets – for workers’ wrists, the tablet at the exit or the desktop – so they can track their moods and how they feel about work.

It’s all part of the affective computing movement, in which your mood can be analysed by cameras picking up your facial expressions in cars and shops. Already car companies want this technology to test driver behaviour, movie companies want to use it to test audience responses and marketing companies want to test for the customer eye-roll when a dud commercial pops up.

Right now there are mood-management apps like Niko Niko (which asks questions like, “How was your manager today?” And, “Did you feel heard at work today?”) but before too long, a camera on the top of your computer screen could pick up your reaction to an email from the boss.

That’s a lot of sharing going on around the water cooler. And some workers might feel pretty weird about it (especially if their biofeedback makes a lie of what they’re telling the boss about how “happy” they are).

Thankfully, even technology companies realise there’s a limit to how much they can rely on the data. Google found out that even though it developed an algorithm to work out who should get promotions, staff didn’t want to use it. They wanted to own the process, not outsource it to a mathematical formula.

In the space of a few years Google went from proclaiming “people decisions at Google are based on data” to “people should make people decisions”. That should make you happy. Quick, track it now. 

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