If you had to choose a sector worker most deserving of a bit of sympathy, hospitality employees might be your first thought.
After all, these brave and patient people have to deal with tricky clients and angry, disappointed (and sometimes unreasonable) customers on a daily basis.
But I’ve got news for you; for almost a year now, employees in a hospitality sector made up of restaurants, hotels, customer attractions and cruise liners have consistently voted themselves to be the happiest of all industries analysed by my engaging.works website (which measures the workplace happiness of thousands of individuals).
What’s more, across all 13 survey questions for which there's consistent data, the sector scores higher than the average of all the others. These questions concern issues such as reward, recognition, career development, freedom, wellbeing and, most importantly, happiness. Since we launched the survey, around five hundred hospitality sector employees have been asked: do you feel happy at work? Sixty-eight per cent said as such, compared to an average of 61pc elsewhere.
They also feel better respected (75pc vs 70pc), better cared for (63pc vs 61pc) and better recognised when they do something well (67pc vs 63pc).
These are some excellent levels of engagement, but improvements can always be found.
Take management, for example; between the industry's managers and non-managers, there are three areas where change will help.
First is employees feeling listened to. Seventy-one percent of managers agreed with the statement: do you feel that your views are heard at work? Only 60pc of non-managers could say the same. Second was people believing that they do something worthwhile (76pc of managers vs 65pc of non-managers).
Clearly, those who lead in this sector can become better listeners and can better impress the value of their team’s work.
Most critical to my mind, however, is that 74pc of managers feel empowered to make decisions, compared to only 58pc of non-managers.
During my three decades at The John Lewis Partnership, I was always keen to give frontline staff who came into contact with customers the greatest possible freedom and authority to deal with issues in their own way.
Nine times out of 10, I found it less expensive than escalating problems, and the customer always felt happy having a concern dealt with there and then, with no time-consuming referral.
By saving costs and improving the customer experience, it makes business sense for the sector to Further empower its frontline staff, but it would also improve their own feeling of self worth (and thus their happiness and wellbeing).
What else? Arguably, the greatest improvements in hospitality could come from targeting a number of issues identified within the 18 to 24-year-old group. It should start with ways to recognise good performance, with only 48pc saying that they felt recognised, compared to an average of 64pc in other sectors. Feeling well-informed (50pc vs 59pc), trusted (54pc vs 63pc) and like they’re being developed (52pc vs 62pc) are also causes for concern.
I’ve always felt McDonald’s method of awarding stars for attainment, visibly displayed on a uniform, a move in the right direction. I works after all in the armed forces, Boy Scouts and Girl Guides.
Pay is also worth a mention. At an agreement rate of 67pc, the score for “feeling appropriately rewarded” ranked ninth out of the 13 engaging.works questions. At first glance, that seems like cause for concern for hospitality companies, but when we compare it to the average of other sectors (63pc) it's significantly higher. There's no age group, management level or gender where the hospitality sector scored below the average elsewhere on feeling fairly paid.
What this shows is the importance of businesses having comparable data.
I was talking recently to a very experienced HR director within the hospitality sector. Their company’s employee engagement survey asks workers if they agree with a series of statements and is conducted on an ongoing basis.
The firm’s recent surveys have revealed that "being paid fairly" is a consistently low scorer and, if anything, was getting worse as word of the score spread and some people no doubt saw the chance to press a point. Although the HR director did not feel pay the key priority she was being pushed to take action and launch a new initiative to tackle the pay issue.
The first issue with this is the belief that pay and employee engagement are linked; getting pay right can mitigate simmering discontent if people feel unfairly paid, but it does not in and of itself create engagement. More important is recognising when something is done well.
But more than anything, it shows that company surveys that are internally focused can lead to unsophisticated outcomes, because who’s to say that your low score is not the best in the country?
When I ran Waitrose, it always frustrated me not to know in our annual survey how we scored against other retailers, or how the general economic environment might be affecting results across the board.
It’s only by having comparative data, in addition to ongoing performance information, that a business can make informed decisions about where to focus their energy (and budget) on improving things for employees. And only by allowing individuals to see their own results compared to others like them can more informed debates take place.
Mark Price is a businessman, writer and was previously minister of state for trade and managing director of Waitrose