One way of thinking about workers’ happiness is to measure the extent to which it contributes to higher stock returns for the corporations in which they work. That’s exactly what Alex Edmans, Lucius Li, and Chendi Zhang did and the result is not particularly surprising: employee satisfaction is, in fact, associated with positive abnormal stock returns. But there’s a caveat: the positive relationship really only holds in countries that have “flexible” labor markets (such as the United States and the United Kingdom), that is, where it is relatively easy to hire and fire workers. In other countries (such as Germany), where “regulations already provide a floor for worker welfare,” there’s very little effect.
As Mark Thoma explains,
Why might this be the case? One suggestion is that when a company spends money to make workers happier in a flexible market, it can then attract the most productive workers from other firms. But when labor markets are less flexible, it’s harder for workers to change employers, and the payoff from spending on worker satisfaction is much lower.
The U.S. has a relatively flexible labor market, and one reason for that is the “commodification” of labor. Increasingly, labor has come to be treated like any other input to the production process. All that matters is the contribution to the bottom line.
Of course, another way would be to move beyond the choice between flexible and not-so-flexible labor markets: by eliminating the commodification of labor power, changing what the bottom line means, and letting workers themselves democratically decide how to increase their happiness on the job.