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Negativity Grows in the Workplace

A sense of pessimism grips many U.S. workers today. What can employers do?

Let’s say you oversee a team of restaurant workers—waiters, hostesses, dishwashers, cooks. Many seem lethargic lately. Disinterested in their jobs. Some are quitting with little notice. Others complain about their working conditions.

You’ve tried everything: Pep talks. Modest raises. Free passes to the gym next door. Happy hours on the company dime. But things don’t seem to be improving.

You’re not alone. It seems that pessimism has gripped many employees in the U.S. And companies across the nation are struggling to keep workers happy—or keep them at all.

“Workers feel their hard work will not get them any closer to a better life for themselves or their family,” says Laura Putnam, a workplace well-being expert and author of Workplace Wellness that Works (Wiley, 2015). “It’s the sense of feeling left out of the American Dream and never fully receiving the fruits of one’s labors. Persistent pessimism, especially at work, can ultimately add up to an overriding sense of despair.”

Workers feel their hard work will not get them any closer to a better life for themselves or their family.”
Laura Putnam

Studies, surveys and polls reveal a stark truth: Approximately half to three-quarters of U.S. workers are pessimistic about their jobs and their work futures.

So, what can a company’s leaders do?


“There is little doubt in my mind that the best way to address the growing concerns about employee burnout, mental health and wellness overall is to address the work itself,” wrote Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, in a foreword to 2023 research from Businessolver. Those reports found that 51 percent of employees reported having experienced a mental health issue last year, and 80 percent said they’re willing to leave their companies for a more empathetic employer—and are confident they can find one.

The research underscores how much employees value a healthy work environment—perhaps more than gym memberships or happy hours.

“What matters is creating a positive, learning-oriented culture that supports people [so they can] deliver value, creating conditions for meaningful interactions that build energizing relationships, and ensuring every employee has the resources needed to do their job,” Edmondson wrote. “Notice what isn’t on this list: all the fun perks that are unrelated to making work ‘work’ as it should. It’s not about being tough or uninterested in employees’ lives. It’s about enabling individuals and teams to make work ‘work.’ ”

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What Is Pessimism?

Experts say pessimism is a lack of hope or confidence about the future. “When someone is feeling pessimistic, they expect that things are more likely to be worse for them in the future than they are currently,” says Jessica Grossmeier, a workplace well-being expert and author of Reimagining Workplace Well-Being: Fostering a Culture of Purpose, Connection, and Transcendence (Modern Wisdom Press, 2022).

It’s actually healthy to have a somewhat pessimistic view of things, says Russell Robinson, founder of Amplified Research + Consulting LLC, which researches, analyzes and consults on employee engagement and work culture.

“This pessimism can help fuel change or provide clarity,” says Robinson, who is also director of the Key Undergraduate Leadership Development at American University’s School of Public Affairs. “However, like fear, an unhealthy amount of pessimism can do damage to a person in their personal and work lives. As a professor, I have seen how too much pessimism impacts the performance and wellness of my students.”

Nicole Mixdorf, founder and chief wellness officer at wellness company Balance by Nature, is no stranger to what a stressful work environment can do to a person.

After years of climbing the corporate ladder in a global firm, she became physically and mentally exhausted and felt so ill that she had to take a leave of absence.

Like fear, an unhealthy amount of pessimism can do damage to a person in their personal and work lives.”
Russell Robinson

In recent years, she’s not the only one.

A November 2023 report from meQuilibrium, which predicts workforce risk for burnout, turnover and mental health problems, found that three-quarters of the 4,466 U.S. employees surveyed (75 percent) are experiencing pessimism about their country. Other stressors negatively impacting employees include money (46 percent), work (39 percent) and relationships (28 percent).


When it comes to employees’ desire to quit, the report found that mental demands (identified by 35 percent of respondents), compensation (33 percent) and opportunity for growth (31 percent) were the top turnover triggers.

During Mixdorf’s time away from the corporate world, she decided to launch Los Angeles-based Balance by Nature, which helps companies create cultures that increase employee engagement, reduce attrition, and improve mental and physical health. When employees can bring into balance all aspects of their lives—including careers, finances, health, relationships and family—they will feel complete and will be able to do their best work, Mixdorf says.

What Led to This Rise in Pessimism?

The increase in pessimism was not sudden. “The rise is one that has been long in the making—especially for working class Americans,” Putnam says.

In 2019, income inequality in the U.S. reached its highest level in 50 years, she says, citing U.S. Census Bureau data. This divide only increased during the pandemic, according to a Federal Reserve survey. More recently, layoffs in the tech industry have led to increased pessimism among employees in that sector, Putnam says.

As measured in the meQuilibrium report, pessimism is on the rise due to financial insecurities, political tensions and the workplace itself. The fall 2023 report showed increases in job stress and decreases in positivity. It linked respondents’ pessimism about the state of the country with pessimism about their work. In other words, thinking about the state of the country influenced how employees felt about their jobs.

Interestingly, this report found that employees felt more optimistic about their own personal work situation than they did for the country as a whole; they expect things will improve for them but not for the majority of the country.

Robinson thinks it’s only normal to be somewhat pessimistic given the chaotic events of recent years, including the COVID-19 pandemic, social justice challenges in the U.S. and world conflicts. And now, Robinson says, we are asking: “ ‘What is work in a work-from-home and return-to-work world? What is the role of the physical office?’ When I graduated from college in 1991, you went to work at the office. Now, work can go where you are. What does that do to cities, suburbs and quality of life?”

Political divisions are preventing government leaders from addressing national concerns such as immigration, climate change and the country’s debt, Grossmeier says. Some social media algorithms are amplifying this negativity, and social contagion is spreading it, she says.

What Managers and Executives Can Do

These challenges are having an outsized impact on managers. “The biggest driver of an engaged workforce and culture is the supervisor,” says Robinson. “So, basically, having more emotionally intelligent leaders is the best starting point. Next, having leaders that can create a culture that fosters wellness where employees can be vulnerable and talk about how they are experiencing the world is critical.”

The meQuilibrium report also found that employees were less pessimistic about their work situation when they had a supportive manager. It concluded that manager support cuts turnover risk by 44 percent to 55 percent by helping to reduce factors such as burnout and the disconnection between work and life purpose.

Good supervisors “listen to their employees and understand where they are in the world, then use that [information] to make decisions. Let’s look at return to work (RTW). When I talk to organizations, I say they should be deliberate in their RTW policy. No matter what the decision is … all in the office, all remote, or some form of hybrid … there will be employees who love the decision, hate the decision or are indifferent. Know how employees will relate” to the decision, Robinson says.

Moving from pessimism to optimism can only happen through collective efforts, Putnam says. Doling out more individual interventions, such as mindfulness apps, will do little, as indicated by a recent study conducted by William J. Fleming, a fellow at Oxford University’s Wellbeing Research Center, who analyzed survey responses from 46,336 workers at companies that offer wellness programs.

This study, in combination with an earlier survey and analysis conducted by McKinsey Health Institute, indicates that companies are solving for the wrong problem. That is, they continue to target individuals, when the problem lies in how managers are leading their team members.

“No program, no mindfulness app, no exercise class, no platform can stand up to basic work practices,” Putnam says.

These basics include elements like:

  • How meetings are run.
  • How people are treated day in and day out.
  • How much of a sense of belonging employees feel at work.
  • What workloads are like.
  • Whether there’s a perceived sense of fairness at work.
  • How performance reviews are conducted.
  • Whether employees are getting paid adequately for the work they do.

“In other words, it’s the broader organizational culture and how teams work together that need to be addressed—not the individual employees getting barraged with more wellness to-dos,” Putnam says.

“Effective approaches to burnout require employers to address unrealistic job demands, increase resources needed to get the job done, increase autonomy, address unfairness and increase peer support,” Grossmeier says.

Here are some recommendations from experts interviewed for this article to help employees move from pessimism to optimism.

  • Strengthen and foster peer support among teams. Teaching and encouraging employees to support one another can increase optimism.
  • Increase worker autonomy—the ability of workers to determine how they do their work—through flexible work arrangements.
  • Provide resiliency training and team building. Resiliency training and interventions that teach employees positive coping skills and cognitive reframing techniques can buffer pessimism.
  • Don’t assume you know what’s causing stress and negativity for your employees based on a general national survey. Demographics and job type play a role. For example, we know financial well-being is an issue for many employees with the current economic situation. One employee group might benefit more from financial planning services, while another might need support with covering child care or affordable transportation.
  • Provide managerial support. This can protect employees from negativity about work. Consider training managers in emotional intelligence, compassion and empathetic listening. –D.W.

Dana M. Wilkie is a freelance journalist based in Panama.


Explore Further

SHRM provides resources and strategies to help employers support workers and overcome pessimism at work.

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