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Miserable Modern Workers: Why Are They So Unhappy?

A woman is sitting at a desk with a laptop in front of her.

​Today's workers are disengaged. They lack motivation. They're bored. They're stressed. They're burned out.

Researchers at Gallup, Randstad and Mercer conducting survey after survey have come to these conclusions. In fact, these surveys seem to paint an increasingly bleak picture of life at work.

At a time when technology has arguably made the workplace more efficient than ever, laws are protecting employees better than ever, and companies are offering benefits perhaps more generous than ever, why would U.S. workers be so checked out?

"One could argue that today's employees are as equally stressed as their predecessors, but for different reasons," said Jodi Chavez, president of Atlanta-based Randstad Professionals, a segment of Randstad US, which provides finance, accounting, HR, sales, marketing, legal staffing and recruitment services. "They fear having their jobs outsourced to another country, have anxiety about how best to work alongside new technologies such as automation and robotics, have increased financial pressures with rising student loan debt and late retirement, and feel pressure to be 'on' and answering e-mails 24/7."

Disengagement Can Lead to Bad Habits

Gallup has been measuring employee engagement in the United States since 2000 and finds that less than one-third of U.S. workers report that they are "engaged" in their jobs. Of the country's approximately 100 million full-time employees, 51 percent say they are "not engaged" at work—meaning they feel no real connection to their jobs and tend to do the bare minimum. Another 17.5 percent are "actively disengaged"— meaning they resent their jobs, tend to gripe to co-workers and drag down office morale. Altogether, that's a whopping 68.5 percent who aren't happy at work.

Recently, Randstad US found in its own survey that disengagement has led to some bad habits among the nation's workers: Unhappy workers admitted that while on the job, they drank alcohol (5 percent), took naps (15 percent), checked or posted on social media (60 percent), shopped online (55 percent), played pranks on co-workers (40 percent), and watched Netflix (11 percent).

"Some employers may see checking social media a few times a day as a small offense, while napping on the job or watching Netflix could be considered serious safety hazards for other employers," Chavez said. "Really, we found that these results are part of a bigger story—a trend of burnout and job dissatisfaction. Burnout is a natural human reaction to stressful environments, or long workdays, but it may also be a sign that an employee isn't the right fit for a position. It's important for employers to be aware of these habits, evaluate if they're a sign of a larger issue and identify what they can do to help employees feel appreciated."

Even if today's workers are no more disengaged than workers of decades past, three things may be making the "commentary on disengagement louder," said Ken Oehler, global culture and engagement practice leader with London-based Aon:

Scrutiny. "Management focus on people and talent is much greater now than in the past," he said.  "Three or four decades ago, studies could not find a link between job satisfaction and performance, and the concept of engagement did not even exist. There are now many studies establishing the link between engaged employees and better performance. With this we have seen a great increase in the measurement and thirst for understanding [of] how to maximize the employee experience, employee engagement and employee performance. So when the rate of disengaged employees does not seem to change much, management becomes dissatisfied and wants to know what can be done."

Expectations of work. "Employee expectations about work are dramatically different than a few decades past," he said. "Few workers sign up thinking they will be employed by the same company for life and be rewarded with a nice pension. Most Millennials don't want that. They thirst for development, advancement, movement, impact and purpose. So, when that doesn't happen, [discontent] can get loud."

Rate of change. The constant technological demands and steep learning curves of many modern jobs can overwhelm the senses, he said. "I believe many workers are worried about keeping up with this rate of change and having the relevant skills required for the future. Companies and employees need to be smarter and faster, and the technology involved in work is largely unchanged or inadequate. This is really stressful when the need and rate of change increases and the technology, tools and processes do not support this."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing and Sustaining Employee Engagement]

Are Small 'Fixes' Enough?

The "fixes" that employee engagement experts often suggest to make workers happier on the job, however, may not be making much of a difference—at least not if recent surveys measuring employee satisfaction are to be believed.

"Will simple things like getting a good night's sleep, asking for help or finding a creative outlet transform every employee's attitude?" asked Chavez. "No. But these small fixes are easy, actionable things that people can try if they're truly stressed, exhausted or having external problems, as these changes can boost productivity and overall happiness at work. If not, then maybe the employee needs to do some deeper exploring as to whether the job, employer or even career are a good fit."  

The pressures put on modern workers to "do more with less" may be the result of business shareholders who—having grown cautious following the Great Recession—aren't willing to expand budgets to hire more people at companies or better compensate those already there, Chavez and Oehler said. Worker pay has remained relatively flat since the recession, with nominal annual increases even though the economy and markets are said to be booming.

"Ensuring that you get pay right is critical," Oehler said. "Perceptions of pay inequity will erode trust and engagement."

Said Chavez: "It's true that wages have remained relatively flat for the last several years. At the same time, there's more competition for top, skilled talent, so employers are becoming more creative when it comes to benefits. These benefits can come in many different forms—student loan benefits, access to telemedicine, stipends for commuting, flexible hours and remote work arrangements. While some may prefer higher salary over increased vacation time, some value robust learning and development programs. As for what makes work gratifying, every employee is different."

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