Why Am I Unhappy at Work?

ByMargie D. Moore

Apr 8, 2022 , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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SPEAKER 1: What I really dislike about my job is really things like paperwork, filling out insurance forms, talking on the phone to schedule appointments, going to meetings.

SPEAKER 2: Probably my biggest frustration is when the work that I do, which I’m so passionate about, doesn’t connect well to larger strategic initiatives, or there is a gap in helping the organizational leadership, see that.

SPEAKER 3: What I dislike or where I feel uncomfortable or what I avoid is creating reports. And I think some of that is that I’m afraid the reports are going to reveal that I’m not doing my job well or that I will not have created them accurately.

SPEAKER 4: There are definitely parts that I dislike and reserve for special days when I’m in a particular mood, those parts are really the challenges that come with developing marketing ecosystems through different softwares that don’t speak well together.

SPEAKER 5: Work activities that I dislike, typically things about dealing with hard conversations with some of our team. We are a growing team and we are experiencing growing pains at times.

SPEAKER 6: I think I dislike that I don’t have as many opportunities to work with companies or organizations where social impact is at the core of who they are.

ALISON BEARD: I’m Alison Beard and this is Find Joy in Any Job, a special series of the HBR IdeaCast, looking at how to find more to love in your work and help other people do the same. Those were few HBR listeners sharing the frustrations they have with their jobs.

And I’m sure many of you have similar issues. Office politics, unclear paths to advancement, boring assignments, stress, burnout. When things like this build up, it can make you want to quit, but that’s not the only way to solve the problem. Often it’s not the best way. In fact, for a lot of people, it’s not even possible.

So each Thursday for the next four weeks, we’re going to take you in a different, and we hope more viable and positive direction. We’ll help everyone figure out how to make their existing work situations better for themselves and their teams. Our guide is Marcus Buckingham. He’s a researcher, consultant and author, and his latest book is called Love and Work. It’s about digging down to unearth what actually makes us happy and then finding a way to make sure those things are part of our jobs. But first let’s understand the problem in a little more detail. Marcus, so glad to have you here.

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Hey, Alison, lovely to be here.

ALISON BEARD: Big picture, how unhappy are workers right now?

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Well, as part of this institute work, we have a chance to do these global studies of sentiment about work. Prior to the pandemic, engagement levels around the world were hovering around 18% of people fully engaged and resilience levels were about 17% feeling highly resilient, engagement and resilience are slightly different. Engagement’s about your proactive frame of mind to deliver of your best and resilience, as you would expect, is really how well do you respond to challenges and obstacles that you face. And then the pandemic hit affected us all differently, but basically now the most recent data that came out of a 27 country study is both of those things have sunk two points, two points lower in engagement, two points lower in resilience, and we didn’t start at a very high level. So the bottom line for many of us, for all sorts of different reasons, work just isn’t working.

ALISON BEARD: And did you find any differences across industries, geographies, or age or demographic groups?

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Well, funnily enough age, no, not really. I mean, I know we talk about the fact that boomers are sort of more re resilient than say the Gen Zs or Gen Ys. And we talk about the millennial generation being the teacup generation, and they’re superficially confident, but you drop them and they shatter, but our data didn’t actually reveal that at all. And this is three years of, now north of 75,000 people around the world. So it’s not really an age thing. Gender, there’s really not much difference in gender. What we did find is difference by country, which is sort of interesting. The least resilient country in the world right now is Sweden. The most resilient country in the world right now is the United Arab Emirates. I don’t entirely know why, but Sweden’s at 8% and the UAE is at 25%.

We did find some countries that were more resilient than they were engaged and vice versa. So China is highly resilient, but not very engaged. And Israel is very engaged, but weirdly not very, in terms of sentiment, resilient. The biggest discovery of late is that the two least engaged and least resilient populations are number one, healthcare workers.

ALISON BEARD: Not surprising given the pandemic.

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Yes. Although Alison, that number was also true before the pandemic. Even before the pandemic, 73% of doctors said that they wouldn’t tell their kids to be doctors. And you had nurses having twice as high levels of PTSD than veterans returning from war zones. And that was before the pandemic. The second least resilient, least engaged work group, sadly is teachers. So healthcare and education are the two least engaged, least resilient professions.

ALISON BEARD: And that’s surprising because you do think of those roles, jobs as having some intrinsic rewards, being fulfilling in lots of ways. So that’s really depressing.

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: It is. I mean, we put our sick people in there and then we put our kids in there and you’re right. There’s so much written, isn’t there? About find your purpose and that the why is what you need to find. And of course, it’s good to have a purpose, but boy, if there were two professions where your why, your purpose was really vivid and you could really go to work every day feeling meaningful about what you were doing, it would be healthcare and education. And yet the work itself drains the living daylights out of them, at least according to them. And you’re right. The pandemic, in a sense, it’s just turned the screw on what was a preexisting problem.

ALISON BEARD: So what’s your sense as to why this is happening? Why do people feel so disengaged in their jobs, both before the pandemic and now as we hopefully emerge from it?

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Firstly, obviously, as you said, it does vary by person, it varies by country, it’ll vary a wee bit by industry. But in general, if you were to point to three things that were causing this gross alienation and dissatisfaction at work, the first thing you’d point to is an erosion of trust. Only 14% of us strongly agree that we trust our team leader or senior leaders, 14% of us. And again, it varies a little bit by industry, but 14% of us is not a very high number. And of course it’s very difficult for you to grow, for you to develop, for you to feel agency if you aren’t in an environment that’s filled with trust.

The second thing is what I would call the demise of teams. Since human beings started working together 50,000 years ago, we do most of our best work on teams. I mean, that’s how humans work. We aren’t by ourselves in a shed at the bottom of the garden, most of us feel most productive when we’re working on teams and 65 or 66% of us say we do our work on more than one team actually. So teams is the natural human state of working healthily.

And in many, many industries, we’ve just forgotten that. Humans work best when we, we thrive – I mean, the relationships between engagement and team membership are really strong. It’s almost impossible for you to feel engaged at work if you are not part of a team.

Then I think the last part of it is most work is just a really strong emphasis on conformity. We’ve got competency models and attributes and job descriptions that basically say in order to do this job well, you’ve got to meet all these requirements. And then we’ve got feedback tools and 360s and grades and ratings that rate you against the model. And so in the end, it means that for many of us at work, we are seen, we are seen for who we are as individuals. So those three things amongst a lot of other variation, those three big ones, trust, teaming, and conformity are causing a lot of us to feel ticked off, frankly.

ALISON BEARD: And it sounds like that’s an organizational problem, right? The employers, the workplaces need to be fixed.

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Yes. Now there is stuff that the individual can do, certainly because of the pandemic, obviously for many of us, we’ve gone down pretty deep. We’ve looked at ourselves in the mirror and sometimes it was pretty scary. But at other times we came to realize some things about ourselves in terms of our routines and our rituals and our self mastery. And when are we most productive? When are we least productive? What routines should we put into our lives?

But you’re right. I mean the basic challenge for us all is that we’ve designed work. I mean, look at nurses, you’ve got nurse supervisor to nurse ratios of one nurse supervisor to 60 nurses. And then you wonder why the nurses burn out when that poor nurse supervisor can’t know anything about these 60 people, it’s too many people.

And so as humans, we’re coming back into the world of work going, you previously, dear company, has set me up as just a cog in a machine. And yes, we talk a lot about people are our greatest asset in yes, we’ve advanced so far since Henry Ford’s assembly line mentality and yes there’s been advances, no question, but for many of us, work was an inhuman unseen conformity focused place. And the pandemic probably has enabled us to have a more serious conversation about what work should be like for humans.

ALISON BEARD: How much do external rewards matter? Promotions, raises acknowledgement? Can you get engaged by having those things put in your lap?

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Well, certainly in terms of one of the things that you mentioned, yes. So recognition, attention, there’s no question that human beings thrive when there is somebody who is paying attention to what they do. So yes, that is a very important part of our life. We develop in response to another human being, but the pay stuff, the promotion stuff is interest sting. And this is a meta analytic study, basically that means many different studies coming together and looking what the relationships are. If you look at the relationship between satisfaction with pay and engagement, satisfaction with pay explains just about 2%, 2% of the variance in your level of engagement. Whereas if you say you have a chance to do something you love every day, you are almost six times more likely to be highly engaged at work.

So that doesn’t mean that we don’t like to be paid well, it means it’s not enough. And in fact, the more we try to use extrinsic motivations like that, goal-oriented motivations like that, it does appear as though those begin to actually diminish your intrinsic motivations. It’s almost like they start throwing you off and confusing you. I mean, Amazon’s just jump their base pay from 160 to 320. And that might be good for keeping people from leaving. Targets just up there per hour pay. I’m not suggesting you don’t do that, I’m suggesting that’s like a sugar high. I think Daniel Kahneman’s works says you get north of 75,000 as a joint household income. And there’s really very, very little commensurate increase in wellbeing or satisfaction or engagement or resilience by the more money that you get.

So of course, one isn’t suggesting that people don’t like getting more money, they do. But in terms of all the things we’ve just been talking about, engagement, resilience, thriving, innovation, creativity, collaboration, all the things that companies really want, money doesn’t get you any of that. It’s my more like a gateway drug, get me in, take it to the ballpark, but I won’t win the game. So it’s not nothing, but it’s not a lot.

ALISON BEARD: The solution is not to quit your current job to do the same job somewhere else for more money, because it won’t make you any more engaged.

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: The problem of course is that if you do that, by the time you get five years in, you’re damaged, you’re psychologically damaged because all of us as unique humans, if we’ve got things that we love to do, that love is a force, it needs to be expressed. And if you don’t get to express it, it doesn’t just not go anywhere, it starts burning you up from the inside out. It harms you. So anybody saying to someone else, hey, suck it up, pay your dues and then you’ll be able to make money later is really, really dangerous advice.

ALISON BEARD: But who’s going to do the boring work, Marcus. It’s okay to do the boring work, you just can’t be doing it all the time.

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Well, yes. So we’ll have to dive into that. Right. But, but first of all, just remember because of the variation, imagine the huge variation in 5,000 milky ways of stars in your brain versus my brain, what you consider boring work is not what I consider boring work. It really depends upon which person’s perspective as to what’s boring, what’s not. What’s boring, sorry, but boring is in the eye of the beholder.

ALISON BEARD: Some people actually like doing Excel spreadsheets.

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Oh my word. Some people love books balancing, it’s like a dopamine rush, not me, but there are people, clearly there’s so much… I mean that’s why the whole thing here is variation. Human variation is we just haven’t built human variation in as the fundamental design principle for work. And that’s a shame.

ALISON BEARD: Are we asking too much of work though? To find love, to find joy, to be so fulfilled, is there an argument that well it’s work? You go in nine to five and then you find those things outside of it.

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: If you study people that are burning out, it does sure look as though work is awful and work’s just alienating and depressing. And of course, therefore the solution should be that rather than a five day week, we should have a four day week. And there’s a lot of talk about that in the moment that hey, look work’s just work, man. It’s a transaction. You sell your time and your talent, take your money, go home and be there for the people you love.

There’s an argument to be made for that I suppose. But you look at highly successful people. You don’t look at the burnouts, you look at the people that are thriving and you can see that the two most powerful questions that relate to engagement, resilience, productivity, retention are, do I feel as though someone cares about me at work? And do I have a chance to do something that I love every day at work? Those two questions explain most of the variance of engagement and resilience and performance and turnover.

So for people that are really contributing a lot of work, their work is clearly some sort of manifestation of them. It’s an expression of the best parts of them. No matter what job they’re in, from housekeepers, to miners, to lawyers, to doctors, to salespeople, work can be not necessarily a place where you do all that you love, there’s actually no data that suggests that the most successful people do all that they love, but you can find work in which what you’re being paid to do every day has chunks of it that are expressions of the best of you.

And we do know that when you’re doing something that you love, when you vanish into what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called flow, many of us are familiar with that concept. The idea that you get, some of us just get so hooked into an activity that time flies by, and we think that five minutes has gone by and it’s an hour. And when you look at the chemical cocktail in your brain when you’re doing that, whether you’re balancing a book or whether you’re trying to fix a machine or whether you’re trying to turn around an angry customer, whatever the activity is where you’re in flow, you have this cocktail in your brain of dopamine, norepinephrine, vasopressin, oxytocin, some anandamide, which brings feelings of wonder and awe, that cocktail seems to disregulate your neocortex and it opens your mind up to be more creative, more innovative, more resilient as Barbara Fredrickson said it broadens and builds you.

When we have that cocktail in our brains, we’re just better measurably. We remember details better. We’ve performed cognitive tasks faster. We’re more attractive. People rate us as more attractive. So yes, you’re right, some people can have terrible work and it alienates them and breaks them down. But you study highly successful thriving people and they clearly are not all day every day, but for chunks of the day, they’re in their zone. And when they’re in their zone, they’re better. It’s like loveless excellence is an oxymoron.

What workplaces in general have a hard time with is variation. We have a hard time with human variation. You look at what we do in terms of performance management and basic human capital management at work, the underlying premises, I wish everyone was the same and I wish everyone in the same job was the same. But you look at what we know about the human brain and every single human brain by the time you go to be 19, 20, you got a hundred trillion synaptic connections in your brain. And no one will ever have that same pattern as you do.

And of course, what that means is that some people get a kick out of things, that you don’t. The very first group of people that I had a chance to study when I first joined Gallup, Alison like 25 years ago, I had a chance to do focus groups with the eight best housekeepers at Walt Disney World. They didn’t know each other, they were speaking different languages, but you start asking them about their job through the lens of people who clearly loved it. They actually loved it so much that when some of them had often given chances to get promoted, they turned it down. They wanted to stay doing that job.

And to hear them talk about their job was like a completely undiscovered country of what that job is. One of them said that the thing that she loved is taking the little fluffy toys that the kids leave on the bed every day and arrange them in a different scene every day. So one day the kids come back and Goofy and Donald are hanging out on the bed, one’s got his arm on a remote control, one’s got his arm in empty French fry container. And the kids think, ah, Goofy and Donald just…

And that’s one. And then the other one’s like I sit on the toilet and I lie on the tub. And the last thing I’ll do is I’ll lie on the bed and turn on the ceiling fan. And I can even 25 years later still remember going why? And she was like, well, because like looking at me like I was an idiot. Well, that’s the first thing that a guest does after a long day in the theme parks, they come and they flop down, they turn on the fan and you know what? If dust comes off the top of the fan, they’re going to think the rest of the room is as dirty as the top of the fan.

I love seeing the room the way the guest sees the room. There were so many different, such vivid, little moments, activities, situations that weren’t in the job description. In fact, there were some parts of the job description that said, don’t touch any more of the guest possessions than you need to to clean the room and don’t lie on the bed. So the job description was just formulaic, but you actually talk to people through the lens of their love of it, and it’s like, holy moly, that’s an amazing source of energy and joy for you. And not the same, everyone didn’t love the same bits about it. But looking through the lens of people who love their work is so, I mean, you just designed different work if you were to do that.

ALISON BEARD: But so those are the people who are engaged. Have you seen people move themselves from disengaged to feeling those things without changing professions or quitting their jobs?

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: So one of the questions that we ask around the world is this question, do you think you have the freedom to modify your job to fit yourself better? And. Actually the average, the rolling average of the last seven years on that question around the world is 73% agree and strongly agree that I’ve got the freedom to modify my job to fit myself better. But 18% of us say that we do. So in psychology, we call that an attitude, behavior, consistency problem. We actually think we can, we just don’t. And for many of us, one of the reasons I think for this podcast is to go, hey, now look, you may be one of the 27% of people that are in the wrong job. Okay. Okay. You could be one of the 27 and we should talk about those folks too.

But for 73% of us, we tell ourselves we’ve got the freedom to maneuver to fit this job better, we just don’t manage to do it. So the place where we begin is first of all, understanding that we have the agency and maybe the pandemic has opened our eyes to that. The second thing is some data from the Mayo clinic, studying doctors and nurses. Now this was pre pandemic.

But at the time the Mayo Clinic studied doctors and nurses that were super resilient. And it turns out that 20% is a really useful threshold. You don’t have to do all that you love, but if you could find every day 20% of your activities are things that you love, things where you vanish into doing them, things where as Csikszentmihalyi would say you find flow, just 20%. If you do that, you are far less likely to burn out. And if you get below that threshold, 19, 18, 17, 16%, there’s almost a perfect, so perfect it looks like the data’s fake, a perfect relationship to burn out increase.

Now, if you get double that funnily enough, 40% of your job is what you love or 60%, your resilience doesn’t go up double or triple. It’s almost like you don’t need to have 60% of your job be what you love. I mean, 25 might be good, 30 might be good, but 20 is the threshold. So for many of us, we’ve swallowed the cliche of do what you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life again. Or the cliche of find your calling and you never work day in your life.

It’s like, no, no, no, no. If you really look at the way that the most successful and thriving people act, they take the freedom, which 73% of us say that we have, they take the freedom and then they deliberately try to ensure that every day there is at least 20% of the activities in their day, things that they vanish into, that’s not out of the realm of possibility for many of us, in fact, it’s right there for many of us.

ALISON BEARD: That was Marcus Buckingham, author of Love and Work. All month we’ll be diving deeper into finding more joy in your job, so come back next Thursday for the next installment.

This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Hannah Bates is our audio production assistant and Ian Fox is our audio product manager. If you enjoyed this episode, check out the rest of HBR’s podcasts at hbr.org/podcasts. Thanks for listening to Find Joy in Any Job, A special four part series from the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Alison Beard.

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