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Unhappy Employees: Why There’s So Much Workplace Unhappiness and How to Fix It

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A number of recent studies have found large numbers of unhappy employees who are disengaged with their jobs, disconnected from their company’s mission, and have an unhealthy relationship with their work. But the news isn’t all gloom-and-doom—and there are clear, practical steps employers can take to improve employee happiness.

To be fair, the news isn’t all bad. However, most bits of good news come with a “on the other hand…” qualifier. For example, as reported by the BBC, “numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) suggest quitting has slowed, normalizing to pre-pandemic figures. According to Anthony Klotz, a professor of management at University College London’s School of Management who coined the term ‘The Great Resignation’:

‘Looking at the overall resignation numbers, and seeing they’re back to 2019 levels, I think we can say it’s over…we’re at the tail of it.’

But Klotz cautions that people will continue quitting in high numbers, relative to pre-pandemic years. ‘Keep in mind that the resignation rate is still at about the level it was in 2019 (and) resignations in 2019 were the highest in the 20 years the BLS has been recording it.’”

Another survey found that a majority of workers are content with their jobs, particularly those who left companies for roles with great flexibility during the pandemic. But on the other hand, per Morning Brew, “66% of remote workers would quit their jobs if they had to go back into the office five days a week.”

As reported by Axios, “34% of U.S. workers overall feel engaged at work, up two percentage points from last year.” But…that still means nearly two-thirds of employees don’t feel engaged.

Finally, in addition to improving pay, benefits, and flexibility over the past few years, many companies have also “invested much more in making their workplaces more inclusive and diverse,” per the BBC.

That’s good news—but those gains are now at risk, as Axios notes: “Workers who are parents or caregivers, have disabilities, or are people of color often want or need more workplace flexibility. So, return-to-office mandates can signal that executives will award opportunities and promotions to other workers who comply.”

Overall, the statistics on unhappy employees tell a disturbing story.

Unhappy Employees By The Numbers

Despite those glimmers of positive news, recent research mostly shows widespread unhappiness in the workplace. Among the specific findings:

  • Per Morning Brew, “US employees aren’t doing so hot; in fact, they are the unhappiest they’ve been since the start of 2020.”
  • According to Fast Company, “Only 28% of U.S. employees say they have a healthy relationship with work.
  • “55% of employees say they struggle with self-worth,” mental health, and workplace well-being.
  • 76% of people with an unhealthy relationship with their work consider leaving the company, 39% say they are disengaged, and a third are less productive.”

And finally per Axios, just 35% of hybrid, 33% of on-site, and a mere “28% of fully remote workers strongly agreed that they felt connected to their workplace’s mission and purpose – a record low.”

Why There Are So Many Unhappy Employees

What’s driving this high level of workplace unhappiness? After all, as noted above, working conditions have improved in several ways over the past few years. Workers, generally, have more flexibility. Pay and benefits have improved. And as the BBC notes, companies are investing more in employee well-being and DEI.

Looking more deeply into the data, the top drivers of employee unhappiness include:

Return to office (RTO) mandates: As reported by Morning Brew, “Employees in the tech industry, where RTO mandates have been on the rise, recorded the sharpest decline in happiness over the past three years (-145%). And many are deciding they’d rather quit than commute. When Grindr, the dating app, told all 178 employees to return to the office at least two days a week last month…roughly 45% resigned.”

Several other studies have found similar concerns. We noted in our recent post, How to Resolve the Return-to-the-Office Dilemma, that “One of the hottest topics and biggest dilemmas for HR and corporate leaders today is how to proceed with return-to-the-office policies. Many business executives want their employees back in the office full time. Most employees who’ve had the opportunity to work remotely resist giving that up.

“But viewing back-to-the-office vs. remain-remote questions as a conflict is counterproductive. In high-performing organizations, strong productivity and a healthy workplace culture go hand in hand.”

What employees value most is flexibility. And what employers need most, to foster a healthy and productive company culture, is high employee engagement. Regardless of how they balance remote work with in-office time, the most successful companies recognize that it’s not where their employees work, but how they work that matters.

Bad leadership: Recent studies have also trumpeted a crisis of bad leadership in American companies. It’s not so much a matter of “bad leaders” as it is good people promoted into roles for which they are unprepared, without adequate training.

This leads to frustration among both managers and employees, damage to trust, and reduced engagement. Fortunately, bad leadership can be fixed by a combination of improved recruiting and professional development practices.

Job insecurity: Layoffs, or even worry about layoffs, raise stress levels and can negatively impact employee engagement. Rising interest rates and a slowing economy are increasing concerns about job loss even in segments of the economy that have performed well over the past few years.

No business leader ever wants to institute layoffs, but sometimes conditions require it. As noted in our post on how to rebuild employee trust and morale after layoffs, “61% of business leaders say they are likely to lay off at least part of their workforce this year. Compassionate leaders will offer what services they can to ease the transition out for the affected workers. One of the best actions enterprises can take following a layoff is to arrange team building activities.”

Warning Signs of Unhappy Employees

With more employees working remotely or in hybrid workplace arrangements, employee unhappiness can be more difficult to spot. Here are six warning signs of unhappy employees to watch for.

Increased tardiness and/or absenteeism: If employees are maxing out their days off and generally putting in the bare minimum of time, it’s likely they are disengaged from their work–and possibly even job hunting.

Reduced effort and/or quality: Doing as little as possible or making more mistakes than normal are often signs of disengagement and unhappiness.

Lack of concern about business goals: Unhappy employees are often less concerned about deadlines or about meeting objectives.

Complaints from coworkers or customers: These are big red flags that an employee is unhappy and, consequently, not pulling their weight or putting customers first.

Not offering ideas or suggestions: Employees who are disengaged and unhappy spend less time thinking about how to improve the business. They don’t proactively share new ideas or recommendations, and may appear distracted and inattentive during in-person or online meetings.

Complaints from the employee: This can actually be a good thing. If an unhappy employee complains about something specific, they’re telling you they are unhappy—but also that they still care enough to want to fix whatever is wrong.

It’s vital that managers and supervisors know what questions to ask an unhappy employee. These should always be asked in a one-on-one meeting, in an empathetic and non-confrontational way. The employee doesn’t want to be unhappy. But they may have difficulty articulating why they are unsatisfied. Managers need to show sensitivity but be willing to ask probing questions to get at the underlying issue(s).

How Employers Can Increase Employee Happiness

Improving job satisfaction and employee morale requires more than short-term, one-off activities. In the best performing companies, leaders build a culture focused on employee well-being, engagement, and trust.

As we noted in our post on business lessons from the NFL, building a culture where employees are enabled, empowered, and encouraged to perform at a high level and achieve remarkable goals is a combination and culmination of many factors.

Commenting on the connection between workplace structure and employee engagement, Brian Elliott, an executive advisor on the future of work, told Axios, “Regardless of whether workers are hybrid, remote, or in office, we’re talking about (the percentage of employees who feel engaged at work) sitting below 40%. Companies should be more focused on increasing employee engagement overall.

“The starting point is trust, autonomy. That’s actually what’s going to drive their engagement to your purpose. If you don’t trust them, they actually are going to work less hard for you, because a lack of trust is not something that creates a lot of loyalty or a lot of inspiration to go the extra mile.”

Quoted in Fast Company, Enrique Lores, president and CEO of HP, added “There is a huge opportunity to strengthen the world’s relationship with work in ways that are both good for people and good for business. As leaders, we must always reject the false choice between productivity and happiness. The most successful companies are built on cultures that enable employees to excel in their careers while thriving outside of work.”

How Team Building Helps

In addition to providing employees with flexibility in their work arrangements and strengthening leadership through training, a regular cadence of team building activities is vital to developing a healthy, productive, and engaging workplace culture.

As we wrote in our post on how to talk to your manager about team building, “virtually all team building programs provide the four core pillars of team building: improved communication, interpersonal relations, engagement, and fun.” They also deliver numerous tangible benefits, from enhancing morale, loyalty, retention, and team effectiveness to helping onboard new employees and get them productive quickly.

Different team building activities help to accomplish different goals. For example, in programs like Bridge to the Future, Pipeline, and Momentum, small teams work together closely to build one part of a larger structure but must also collaborate with other teams to make sure all of the parts work together in the end.

Escape rooms and murder mysteries combine an immersive storyline with clues of varying difficulty, to challenge the problem-solving, observation, and collaboration skills of team members.

Charitable corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs such as our Bike Build Donation®, Build-a-Guitar®, and Mini-Golf Build and Food Donation activities combine team building with giving back to the community, creating powerful shared emotional experiences that benefit the company, employees, and local nonprofits.

To help make the ideal choice from our 120+ in-person and virtual team building programs, we administer a detailed needs assessment to match the best program to your specific business goals and objectives.

Conclusion

Numerous research studies have concluded that employees are widely unhappy. Despite recent (small) increases in employee retention and engagement, a solid majority of employees say they are unhappy, disengaged, don’t have a healthy relationship with work, and definitely do not want to return to the office full-time.

Beyond the loss of flexibility in where and when they work, employees are unhappy due to stress, job insecurity, and poor leadership.

Fortunately, unhappiness in the workplace can be turned around. It requires time and commitment, but companies that invest in building a healthy and productive workplace culture, provide flexibility in work arrangements, and invest in ongoing leadership training and team building will reap the rewards of happier employees who are more engaged, collaborative, and productive.

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