Happiness works in the Chinese apparel industry

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Authors: Michael Weatherhead and Jody Aked.

People in work are the same the world over.

In efforts to improve happiness and wellbeing, it seems there is more to connect us than separate us. We recently took the ideas and tools of NEF and Happiness Works into factories in China through our work with an international team of supply chain sustainability managers of Timberland – a major US apparel company. Timberland asked NEF Consulting to develop their existing skills in facilitating collective learning and action with the producers of their clothing ranges. We introduced a number of approaches and techniques, some similar to the survey developed by Happiness Works, others developed by NEF, all focussed on providing a more effective space for dialogue between actors in the supply chain.

Factory audits have their place in improving the effectiveness of supply chains. They expose worker problems but their design typically means that the causes stay unaddressed. One common frustration of sustainability managers is cycles of audits where the same issues are raised and traditional compliance-based thinking is put forward as a solution. At the next audit the same problems re-surface. Our trainees were seeking a different, more sustainable, process to identifying and designing solutions.

Our training was underpinned by two main concepts. The first is employee happiness. This builds on NEF’s dynamic model of wellbeing to recognise that happiness and wellbeing are fluid experiences, simultaneously influenced by changes to our environments and influential in the change process. The second concept is co-production, a strategy for arriving at solutions through equal and reciprocal relationships between all stakeholders. We felt the combination of these approaches would equip sustainability managers with a new set of questions for factory managers, staff and the wider community, and provide a stronger basis for finding collaborative ways to construct sustainable improvements.

As part of the training, we visited a factory to allow sustainability managers to test out some tools and techniques. We were struck by how similar the needs of the factory workers were to those we had witnessed through our work with office workers in the UK and USA. Health and safety and salary were, of course, mentioned as important, but equally important were ‘feeling proud’, ‘doing a good job’ and ‘social relationships’. The new type of conversation not only brought these ‘needs’ to the surface, but allowed us to start to explore ways to support them. For example, the need to feel an emotional connection to the work place; to have a workplace where workers can give and not simply feel their labour is taken.

Some might see these issues as a distraction from worker rights. So why do we think going back to basics to ask about what people care about at work is valuable? Once this type of conversation is permissible, it opens up new possibilities for action, not wholly reliant on factory owners taking the lead. The issues represent opportunities for projects that can be ‘owned’ as much by the workers as the factory managers. Creating patterns of behaviour where managers trust and collaborate with workers to co-design and then co-produce solutions can have impressive results.

We learned of another factory where the workers had created a factory radio station. The repetitive nature of the work in that factory meant workers wanted to listen to their personal stereos to pass the hours. However, management felt that loose wires could cause a safety issue with the machines. The solution: workers produce music and educational content for the radio which they also run. The benefits: Workers keep learning (through the educational content), give (through the production of programmes for benefit of others) and connect (through development of the programmes and conversations the content provokes). In fact, they achieve the majority of the five ways to wellbeing.

Over time, these sorts of experiences translate into more worker control over the important aspects of their jobs and more interesting work. So people are not so different in what they want from their work. We are not so naïve to think every worker can have the most creative, high responsibility job in the world, or that they would want it. But if we tap into those things that seem to matter most to people, we can find ways to improve worker happiness and wellbeing in every job.

These sorts of outcomes are important from a business perspective. Staff turnover at factories (and all the costs that come with recruitment and training) are a major problem for the Chinese apparel industry. Managers are caught between the need to secure worker loyalty and to guarantee product quality and reliability to buyers. Tools that take a participatory approach to learning and decision-making do not require significant financial investment from business owners. We just need to be willing to have a different type of conversation.

Notes on the authors:

Michael Weatherhead is the international (and former managing) director of NEF Consulting. He established a new branch in South Africa in September 2012 to take NEF’s ideas and frameworks, particularly around wellbeing, to a new audience in the Global South.

Jody Aked is an associate of NEF Consulting. She was involved in the development of the Happiness at Work survey tool and is currently enjoying her time combining participatory techniques, systems thinking and positive psychology to facilitate organisational and social change.

Michael and Jody designed Well Supplied – an engagement process that can be used with all workers in a supply chain from the farm or factory to the boardroom to improve worker well-being and maximise value creation.