According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Gallup surveys show that nearly two-thirds of employees are disengaged at work. In my own experience of the last 15 years and the numerous stories I have heard from people in multiple countries, I have heard and witnessed the same.
Why do we wait for Fridays and not Mondays? Irrespective of where we work, why do we think that our ‘real life‘ starts after work in the evenings and on the weekends? Why is work usually associated with stress and not joy? Why do we have to use our time after work to recover from what happened at work? Why can’t work be fun, satisfying, and enriching? Why can’t work nourish and enrich our lives, rather than making us sick?
I think the current state of work, and the continuous stress and exasperation associated with it, is because of the below 6 reasons:–
1. New Work, Old Practices
We are still managing our teams and people like we did over a hundred years ago. We continue to use the same systems and processes for employee motivation and performance management which were used for manual and rote work in factories.
People are no longer operating assembly lines. And the tasks they do are not what can be done by following step by step instructions. The over a century-old process we continue to use today can result in obedience and compliance but never in engagement and loyalty. In the factories, there was never a concern for people’s mental and physical health, as everyone was replaceable.
The current management theories have evolved from the Scientific Management movement by Frederick Taylor over a century ago. This method focussed on efficiency and achieved performance improvements by standardising processes, paying for productivity, and continuous monitoring of factory workers.
Today, when people rarely work in factories, and when we use our minds more than our hands to work, the scientific management philosophy fails to value the people as individuals. This results in psychologically unsafe environments, where cognitive work is inhibited rather than encouraged. If we continue to use the old management practices in the current age, motivation, productivity, and workplace satisfaction will continue to suffer.
“There is little success where there is little laughter.” – Andrew Carnegie
2. Treating People Like Tools And Resources
We have totally ignored the fact that the work we do today is highly creative and knowledge-based, and doesn’t resemble how we used to work just 3 or 4 decades ago. This leads to people being treated as tools and resources, and nobody likes to work in a place where they are treated like a machine.
People need to be led, and that begins by caring for them, listening to them, and working together to create a trustworthy and psychologically safe environment. Good leaders and companies understand that, and they show their “care” by caring for what their people care about. This has resulted in many employee-friendly practices in companies like Google, Whole Foods, Tata Group, Starbucks, etc which we unheard of just a few decades ago.
These companies understand that employees are their most important stakeholders and not replaceable like tools and machines. They also realise that a totally new level of commitment and productivity is unleashed when people care about their work and see them as owners rather than workers.
3. Lack of Leadership
People today crave freedom and autonomy, and they want to work in a place where they are cared for. They want to be part of a larger vision, and to make a difference. They want to feel proud of what they do and how they do it. The sooner leaders of all companies understand this, the sooner we can create a workforce that is not only highly productive but also healthier and happier.
People today want to be acknowledged and appreciated for the hard work and effort they put in. 79 percent of people who quit their jobs cite ‘lack of appreciation’ as their reason for leaving. Good leaders show genuine appreciation, warmth, and gratitude for employees’ hard work, and never treat their employees like “resources”.
People don’t need feedback (which leaders and managers are always ready to provide). Instead, they need attention, acknowledgment, and autonomy to do their work without unnecessary rules or supervision. Good leaders create a culture driven by universal principles that permeate the culture of the company, and where everyone sees beyond the ‘productivity at all costs’ mantra.
“When people are financially invested, they want a return. When people are emotionally invested, they want to contribute.” Simon Sinek
4. No Or Very Little Management Training
In a recent study, 58 percent of managers said they didn’t receive any management training. This leads to the sad reality of bad management. Most of the managers found in the industry today don’t know how to lead. A Harvard Business Review survey reveals that people trust strangers more than their own boss. Isn’t that not only disappointing but also sad?
Understanding human behavior and basic psychology is not rocket science, yet it appears so. In the last few decades, we have created highly sophisticated interview systems to interview knowledge workers like software engineers, product owners, data scientists, etc. Yet we continue to hire or promote people to management without any specific training and qualification criteria.
It is no doubt people hate and lack trust in their managers when they are rarely trained in basic concepts like emotional intelligence, human psychology, and the various cognitive biases that form the basis of every decision we make. Any decision a leader or manager can impact the productivity of tens or hundreds of people, and hence it is imperative that we train and educate our managers in the latest behavioral and psychological research.
5. Lack Of Downtime
Many of us work in companies where time off is discouraged by peer pressure or because of a fear of falling behind. Because of this people don’t take the leaves they are entitled to and pile up work which they often continue in the evenings or on weekends. All of this results in an unsustainable health impact over the long term, leading to stress and burnout.
Research has shown that productivity declines beyond a certain number of hours worked per week, and more hours doesn’t mean more output. People sit in offices and continue working from home to maintain appearances, which slowly takes its toll on mental health and people’s quality of life.
Adopting a less hectic schedule and allowing people to prioritise personal time can improve ‘flow’ and productivity at work, not to mention health and well being. Some companies are already taking steps (like banning after-work emails) to discourage the always available culture to help people relax and recover from any stress gathered during the day.
Downtime allows people to be more productive, not less, as people come back rejuvenated for another day of “deep work.”
“Most people chase success at work, thinking that will make them happy. The truth is that happiness at work will make you successful.”
– Alexander Kjerulf
6. Unhealthy Eating Practices
You can’t be happy in an unhealthy body. Yet the way we work encourages many bad eating habits. In many modern workplaces, sugary drinks like cookies, chocolates, cakes, cold drinks, candies, etc are available on every floor – for free. Due to the constant rush of never-ending meetings or tight deadlines, people tend to eat unhealthy food, which they often bring to their desks. Many even skip lunch and just gulp one caffeine drink after another to get through the day.
This constant pressure during the day often leads to smoking and alcohol intake during the evening hours to relieve stress, which further impacts the quality of sleep. All of this leads to a vicious circle of unhealthy eating and sleeping practices which results in people gaining weight and explains the increased presence of heart disease and diabetes in our society today.
Research has shown that workplace canteens ‘treat’ employees with foods like pizza, soft drinks, brownies, and pies. They are filled with salt, sugar, fat, and a lot of empty calories. Over time, this adds up and results in a multitude of diseases and long-term health impacts. Just one high-fat meal, research has shown, can turn healthy red blood cells into small spiky cells, which leads to heart disease.
It goes without saying that food has a direct impact on our cognitive abilities and productivity. It is much easier to munch on chips and cola when we are mentally drained as our self-control ability also goes down with mental tiredness. Companies and leaders can help ease this double whammy by encouraging healthy food options that will lead to more motivation, energy, and productivity; rather than leading to diseases like obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart ailments.
Factors like lack of health insurance, erratic shifts, job security, lack of autonomy and freedom at work, etc will continue to make people not just unhappy and unproductive, but also physically and mentally sick. Research indicates that being exposed to these factors contributes to about 120,000 excess deaths per year in the United States alone.
An unhappy workforce causes employee disengagement and low morale, which undermines stock prices, profitability, productivity, and innovation. It is not good for anybody, yet companies continue to use these practices. Companies need to see employees as equal (if not more important) stakeholders to their customers and shareholders and treat them as such.
As long as business leaders continue to treat people like tools, people will continue to be unhappy at work. There is enough research today to show that creative ideas flow easily and we are better at problem-solving and decision-making in a happier state of mind. Watch the “Happiness at Work” documentary below to find out how work pressures have continued to affect our health and well-being.
Dying for A Paycheck : How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance—and What We Can Do About It by Jeffrey Pfeffer