Too Many Miserable Workers: Where Is HR Going Wrong?

With more than 2 in 3 workers unhappy, it could be time for unconventional approaches

By Dana Wilkie May 22, 2014

From an HR standpoint, the numbers are practically apocalyptic: More than 2 in 3 U.S. workers are unhappy in their jobs, according to an October 2013 Gallup poll. That’s about 173 million people who drag themselves out of bed each morning with little to zero enthusiasm for the work that puts food on their tables.

It doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement for the employee engagement efforts that most HR departments insist are a top priority.

But what if, as happiness guru Eric Karpinski suggests, it’s simply human nature to focus on the negative and up to HR managers to help employees “rewire” their brains so they dwell on the positive?

“I don’t think people were any happier decades ago,” said Karpinski, a “positive psychology” corporate trainer whose clients have included Qualcomm and American Express. “In general, it’s easy for us to find negative things and to spend a lot of effort and time on them. That was true in the 50s and 60s and 70s.”

Broad Discontent

The Gallup figures were part of the organization’s State of the Global Workplace report <>, which found that 52 percent of U.S. workers are not engaged—meaning that even if they don’t actively hate their jobs, they’re unhappy and put little energy into work. Another 18 percent are actively disengaged, meaning they can’t stand their jobs and sometimes even sabotage co-workers or their companies.

The findings were part of an international employee satisfaction survey Gallup has been conducting over the years. The October 2013 version gathered information from 230,000 full- and part-time workers in 142 countries. Results were broken out by country.

Taken together, the findings indicate that 70 percent of U.S. workers “are emotionally disconnected from their workplaces and less likely to be productive,” wrote Gallup’s researchers, who noted that less productivity leads to lower profits, which often discourages companies from creating new jobs.

According to a 2013 study by management consulting firm Accenture, the top reasons for workers’ unhappiness are that they don’t like their boss, they feel powerless, they dislike internal office politics, and they don’t feel recognized.

How ‘Rewiring’ Can Help

The Internet, libraries, training companies, coaches and associations such as the Society for Human Resource Management abound with ideas for addressing employee satisfaction. But if so many employees are miserable at work, maybe it’s time to rethink what leads to happiness in the first place, suggested Karpinski, who said human evolution depended on “a negativity bias.”

Centuries ago, “When our brains saw something that risked our lives, our brains held that in memory,” he said. “If we missed the signs of the opposing tribe or the saber-toothed tiger, we didn’t survive. What we need to do with workers is focus on positive things by retraining our minds.”

That’s not to say that some workers don’t have legitimate gripes, he said.

“If we’re talking about $10-an-hour jobs, and you’re struggling to put food on the table,” then more money might be the answer for some workers, he said. But when employees have disposable income, the HR answer may need to go beyond creating “more incentives and bonuses and money.

“Research, over and over, says more money doesn’t make us happier,” he explained. “We get that bonus or raise, and in the short run we feel good—but not for nearly as long as we think” we will.

Karpinski recommended that managers practice, and teach, these daily habits:

Gratitude. In this exercise, all employees—from executives down to individual contributors—write three things each day for which they’re grateful, whether in their personal or work lives. “This starts to train the brain to look for what’s right,” Karpinski said. “We say in neuroscience that neurons that fire together wire together. By creating a habit of looking at what’s right, you start to rewire the brain to look for what’s good so that, eventually, your default thinking is about what’s going well.”

Conscious acts of kindness. Every day, managers should express appreciation for one co-worker or subordinate, congratulate someone at work on an achievement, or encourage a work colleague in an endeavor. “It should be simple, short and sincere,” Karpinski said. “Praise the effort even if the outcome isn’t what you wanted. I’m not saying let’s sing ‘Kumbaya’ and love on each other. But research indicates that if we practice [this] over eight weeks, the amount of positive emotions and increased productivity are pronounced and real.”

Meditation. In this exercise, employees take two minutes away from the keyboard each day to focus on their breathing and to mentally send positive wishes to others. Karpinski acknowledged that this “may sound strange for a work environment, but it retrains the brain so that people feel more engaged.”

Attentiveness. “Stop, listen and talk,” he said. “Stop writing the e-mail while you’re having a conversation. Really engage with people. Use eye contact.”

Reducing Commuting Woes

Jackie Ruka is founder of the Get Happy Zone<>, a personal and professional development organization. She said research has shown that commutes of longer than 20 minutes can affect worker happiness.

“People who have a longer-than-20-minute commute tend to be more unhappy in their jobs, because this increases stress,” Ruka said. “More companies are offering to let employees work partially at home two to three days a week, or telling them to come into the office only for meetings.”

Too much work-related travel, she said, means time away from loved ones and relaxing pastimes, and can make it hard to keep up with a household—all of which can dampen a worker’s mood.

“Doing more webinars and teleconferences—as opposed to requiring travel for work—can lead to more productive work hours, and therefore more time for families, hobbies and the like,” she said.

Giving workers a regular forum to air concerns and worries can also be helpful, she said.

“It can be a weekly, 20-minute meeting with employees, having them air things that may not be working for them or express their ideas for improving the assembly line,” Ruka said. “They feel like they’re being heard. It doesn’t have to be a [complaint] session. It’s more of, ‘How can we as leaders better serve the employee?’ ”

Technology Reboot

Jeff Corbin, founder and CEO of theEMPLOYEEapp, has another idea: rethinking the technology you use to communicate with workers.

More than 8 in 10 workers who participated in a 2014 Employee Communications Satisfaction Survey conducted by Corbin’s company, and whose organizations had corporate intranets, said they’ve either never tried to access the intranet using mobile devices or had a difficult time doing so. Seventy-eight percent said the same thing about accessing corporate social collaboration networks using mobile devices.

Most workers get employee communications by e-mail, the poll found. But given that employees tend to be inundated with e-mails and may not have time to read each one closely, Corbin said, “important employee communications are being missed.

“The fact that employees find it challenging to access corporate intranets and social collaboration tools via mobile [devices] is likely a result of organizations maintaining legacy communications systems that were originally developed for desktop computers,” he said. “Trying to make legacy systems responsive to the mobile device is like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.”

A communications strategy that puts a priority on mobile devices, he said, could “go a long way toward improving job satisfaction and employee engagement.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.



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SHRM's Employee Engagement Survey service focuses on more than 50 aspects of job satisfaction and engagement commonly linked to performance.

SHRM's Employee Engagement Survey service focuses on more than 50 aspects of job satisfaction and engagement commonly linked to performance.



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