Unhappy At Work? You Are Not Alone.

We have to build a way of working where the people doing the work matter as much as the work being done.

A recent report published by TINYhr, based on over 200,000 anonymous employee responses to ongoing engagement surveys, paints a pretty bleak picture of employee happiness.

Some highlights from the report, if you want to call them that:

  • Only 21% feel valued at work.
  • 49% are not satisfied with their direct supervisor.
  • More than one in four do not think they have the tools to be successful.
  • 66% of all employees don’t feel they have strong opportunities for professional growth in their current organizations.
  • 64% do not feel they have a strong company culture.

Let’s examine the financial implications of unhappy employees. Alex Edmonds, a Wharton business school professor, examined the companies on Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work for in America” between 1998 and 2005. Those companies returned 14% on their assets, while the overall market returns 6%. An 8% gap, which could represent millions, depending on the size of the company. Edmans said,

One might think this is an obvious relationship — that you don’t need to do a study showing that if workers are happy, the company performs better. But actually, it’s not that obvious. Traditional management theory treats workers like any other input — get as much out of them as possible and pay them as little as you can get away with.

That thinking — which treats workers as if they are gears in an industrial machine — is wildly out of step with today’s reality: a workforce performing creative and non-routine work, and not rote assembly line processes.

Consider the 64% of employees that feel they lack opportunities for professional growth. Yet this is one of the strongest motivators for engagement and loyalty, especially among millennials. My sense is that this is part of a larger trend: people are so busy doing work that they have no time for deep learning or time for reflection.

Deep learning — where new ideas are examined, mixed with what we already know, and then leading to new understanding about the world, or some aspect of it — is potentially disruptive. It’s not the same as incremental learning, where skills are honed by practice, perhaps on the job.

In a recent Harvard Business Review post, Gianpiero Petriglieri wrote about learning being the most neglected activity at work. He wrote,

Transformational learning rarely builds up so smoothly. It does not just make us more knowledgeable. It reveals what mastery prevents us from knowing. It does not just refine our skills. It changes our perspective. And it is not just a matter of time.

A class, a reading, a difficult conversation with a colleague, may take 1% of our time. And yet they may radically alter how we approach the other 99%, raising questions that jolt us into learning new things from everyday experiences. A challenging assignment, conversely, may take most of our time and yield little new insights.

Take your job’s design. Does it leave space for you to process your experiences and draw a few conclusions or imagine alternatives? Do you have access to people who see the world from another perspective — or just to good old feedback? How often does your team have open conversations about your work together?


We seldom visit the periphery of our knowledge and competence — the region where transformational learning happens — without feeling threatened, exposed, or ashamed. (That is why when we meet a friendly, forgiving face out there — which makes learning easier — we cherish it. We call that a mentor.) People like failure only in inspirational speeches. In real life we endure it, at best, and come to value it only if and when its lessons become clear. Workplace pressures and norms just turn our instinct to steer clear of failure into a habit.

Look past the rhetoric and you will find signs of the neglect of transformational learning everywhere. In the workplace as well as in many business school courses, with their emphasis on tools that can be taught in a weekend and applied on Monday morning. The learning that we privilege is the safer, incremental kind. Learning that makes us better at what we do but hardly frees us up to revisit why we do it that way or what, say, we may want to do next.

I believe that this is a critical — perhaps the most critical factor — is the disengagement of most senior professionals, bit other factors contribute as well.

A survey by the Energy Project revealed that 70% workers do not have regular time for creative of strategic thinking.

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One consequence of not having time to reflect is burnout. In a recent survey of business leaders, Srinivasan S. Pillay, a psychiatrist and a professor at Harvard Medical School, found that nearly all of his 72 subjects showed some signs of burnout.

Tony Schwartz and Christine Parath, who led the study for the Energy Project, believe that they are four factors that collectively lead to — or block — happiness at work:

Employees are vastly more satisfied and productive, it turns out, when four of their core needs are met: physical, through opportunities to regularly renew and recharge at work; emotional, by feeling valued and appreciated for their contributions; mental, when they have the opportunity to focus in an absorbed way on their most important tasks and define when and where they get their work done; and spiritual, by doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose at work.

Turning that around, all these surveys show that companies are doing a bad job of meeting the needs of workers, principally because workers are treated as assets, and not as human beings. The best companies are inherently people-focused, and their leaders are committed to the principle I wrote about in 2013, businesses that are based on how people operate when they feel most free, most creative, most engaged, and most needed. We have to build a way of working where the people doing the work matter as much as the work being done.

This post was originally published on 7 November 2014 on stoweboyd.com

This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

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