The unhappy at work paradox

Unhappy at work

Here’s what I mean by the “unhappy at work paradox” — and heck, this seems a good Labor Day topic.

But, employee engagement globally is dropping — for a half-decade or more. U.S. employee engagement is pretty much in the toilet.

This is the “unhappy at work” paradox: via the unemployment stats, there seemingly are jobs out there for people — but once people get into them, they’re usually not engaged in ’em. What’s happening?

Unhappy at work: The baseline “Gig Economy” situation

If you want to consume some more employment numbers, consider the rise of the Gig Economy. I personally think most people don’t really understand major economic numbers and just quote the ones that bolster their specific point of view. I’m trying not to do that here, but I’m only human, you know?

The whole idea of “The Gig Economy” is people doing something themselves, or patching together different types of work, because the old-fashioned corporate contract isn’t jiving with them anymore. When you have 20-somethings from upper-middle-class families chasing The Gig Economy, you know it’s kind of a “real” thing. People are clearly unhappy at work in the most basic sense if they’re willing to risk a lot to build out their own thing. So, how did we get there?

Unhappy at work: The five basic tenets

I write about this stuff a lot, so here goes. If I had to pick five major reasons for people generally being unhappy at work, I’d lead with these:

The reciprocity problem: Individual human behavior is rooted in reciprocity, i.e. people nodding at you on the street. Companies do not operate according to moral norms — and legally, they have no requirement to do so.

The bad managers issue: By some measure, 82 percent of managers in companies end up being the wrong hire. When you promote the wrong people, there’s a network effect. Those people now manage others. They help dictate their workload. One bad promotion becomes 8-12 people turning over.

The stakeholder problem: 40 years ago, you could argue that employees were “stakeholders” in their company. That has completely changed. In the eyes of most executives, their investors and shareholders are “the stakeholders.” The employees are also-rans. You please those with the money, not those doing the tasks.

The “rich get richer” issue: The 1% owns about as much as the bottom 50% globally, and this attitude is reflected at work too. Your company only has a “Chief Strategy Officer” — shouldn’t everyone be responsible for strategy? — because it’s some guy the execs liked, played golf with, and wanted to “mint.”


The decision-making problem: There’s a big issue with decision-makers in most companies, and you can point to the rise of bureaucracy in many orgs and say “It’s because people would rather be on bloated teams where they don’t need to make decisions.”

Unhappy at work: What do we do?

There are a lot of different attitudes on happiness. Some believe that you control it, so you can make the choice to be happy. I don’t know if I specifically believe that. Honestly, I sometimes believe that happiness at work is a giant scam — probably one cooked up by consultants to allow executives to pay us rank-and-files even less.

(Oh, if I had to list a Reason No. 6 above, it would be stagnant earnings relative to how much you’re expected to produce.)

The changes we need to make in terms of people being unhappy at work are pretty massive, but here are a few suggestions.

Blow up middle management: Most people unhappy at work hate their direct boss, and their direct boss is likely a middle manager. Middle management makes almost no sense in an era of digital tools and systems, but somehow it’s growing. Blow it up. It’s fat. You run effective businesses by trimming fat. Self-driving cars, anyone?

Encourage feedback loops: A lot of people unhappy at work are unhappy because they never know where they stand. (There’s tons of research on this.) They don’t know where they stand because managers hide behind technology and once-a-year reviews to never provide actual feedback. The lack of feedback at most jobs is stunning. We allow this to continue via (a) laziness and (b) “that’s how we’ve always done it.” It’s bullshit. Have a few one on one meetings. See where that goes in terms of productivity.

Stop focusing on perks: Ping pong and kegerators are nice, but that’s not “culture” nor is it “happiness.” That stuff comes from real, organic, human-to-human interaction. Technology has hurt that, and we need to re-chase it.

Give a shit and stop couching everything in buzzwords: That’s where most of this starts, right?

Let me hear from you about being unhappy at work

If you stumble across this post and find yourself unhappy at work, leave a comment. Why are you unhappy at work? What’s the biggest “pain point?” How do you think you could be happier?

Any other thoughts on being unhappy at work, I’m always game to hear them.

Ted Bauer


  1. Agree with you wholeheartedly on the need to abolish buzzwords. Apologists will offer that they convey certain information in a professional manner and establish a language by which business people across industries can communicate, but at their heart they’re a sort of twisted metaphor that removes the individuality and meaning from most communication. We’re humans; we crave variety and excitement in our interaction. As buzzwords begin to become further detached from their original context, they mean less and less, and reduce interaction to a verbal series of 1s and 0s. I write this not simply as a critic of buzzwords but as someone who uses them more than I’d like to: many of my freelance copy assignments often veer into gobbledygook. I blame that partly on word count requirements, and somewhat on my own laziness.

    I also think there’s a lot of value to your point about organizations lacking reciprocity in their interactions with staff. I’ve seen a lot of people argue “why do we need to provide staff with training/bonuses/a welcoming work environment? We’re not obligated to do that!” I’ve also seen that line of thinking extended to locales, e.g. your favorite town and mine Minneapolis: “Why do we need to make transplants feel welcome? They’re on our turf; they ought to assimilate to our way of life!”

    It’s short-sighted thinking. You may not be OBLIGATED as an organization to provide these things, but it is a GOOD IDEA to do so. I’m not obligated to save money for retirement, but I do so because if I don’t, I might be working until I keel over and die. I get where it comes from: there are people who show up and expect to have the world handed to them on a silver platter, sure. I can’t stand those people, either.

    That said, I think more folks ought to take stock of the potential consequences of their actions before doubling down on their beliefs. Don’t wanna train your employees? That’s fine, but don’t be surprised when that employee provides you with work that you consider subpar. Don’t want to provide a welcoming work environment? OK! Be prepared for turnover in the position every 2-3 years. Actions have consequences. Very little activity occurs in a vacuum. If people aren’t thinking about consequences, they need to; if they are, they need to be a bit more upfront about it.

  2. Well done and worthwhile insight and suggestions. Now it’s time to get them listening. If you are only focused on the Money… You risk completely overlooking the People. #RonR… #NoLetUp!

  3. Good article.
    There’s a lot of focus on keeping the client happy and making the product better.
    Inside resources? They are an afterthought, to be acknowledged later in the best of scenarios. Usually that moment never comes.

  4. It starts with BEING REAL. it’s so unoriginal to be professionally and politically correct all the time at work because one spends a big part of their everyday life at work. To be so with clients is one thing but to be on your guard with your boss and colleagues all the time is a stressful experience. In my opinion, honesty is the new quintessential employee value proposition with millennials and gen Z (I know I am calling it “new” on purpose as the concept of honesty is so pseudo at the moment that it might as well be called something else.
    Anna Karenina principle (Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way) applies to most organizations, only, in the context of employee engagement levels where the word family needs to be replaced by employees.

    • All very good points. I like the idea of “honesty” as the new employee value prop. It shouldn’t be considered “new” but it really is.

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