American Workers Are Unhappy, And That Probably Won’t Change For A While


According to a recent survey of blue- and white-collar workers by The Energy Project and Harvard Business Review, only 21 percent of workers feel that they’re able to concentrate on more than one thing at a time. Around 30 percent said they do not have opportunities to do what they most enjoy at work. A 2013 Gallup survey had similar findings: 70 percent of American workers said that they hate their jobs. In fact, the only two things that a (very slight) majority said they do have is “an ability to disengage from work” (42 percent) and “comfort in truly being yourself” (45 percent). Which is to say, if you’re able to stop thinking about work, you’re able to think about yourself and what makes you happy. That less than 50 percent of those surveyed answered “yes” to those questions is a bad sign for American workers and employers alike.

Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath of The Energy Project have a guide for companies to increase employee happiness and, in turn, productivity. “The simplest way,” they write, “for companies to take on this challenge is to begin with a basic question: “What would make our employees feel more energized, better taken care of, more focused and more inspired?”” It’s a simple enough-sounding answer (and one that’s been proposed many, many times before), but companies still don’t really seem to get it.

The exceptions to this rule are telling. Schwartz and Porath bring up big-box retailer Costco, which pays its employees an average of $20.89/hour (by contrast, a college-educated twentysomething working full-time in food services makes around $10/hour). Costco been well-documented as an excellent place to work. A cashier at an Illinois Costco described their work experience as such: “Movement around departments, benefits for part-time employees, flexible schedule, given good amount of time for breaks, and co-workers are friendly.” Again, this just sound like basic common sense, especially if you don’t have experience with service industry upper management.

This is almost a uniquely American problem. In a 2013 survey by the job search engine Monster, America ranked fourth behind Canada, the Netherlands, and India in job satisfaction. Writing on FastCo.Exist, Sydney Brownstone notes that Germans work about half as much as Americans do, but still maintain the fourth-largest economy in the world. Germany is obviously a much different and smaller country than America (and, according to the Monster survey, Germans hate their jobs a lot more than we do), but there must be a happy medium somewhere in between the 35- and 60-hour work week.

On the investing blog The Motley Fool Daniel Kline writes, “Costco has built a tremendous business on being a good employer. The company made a $2 billion profit on its $103 billion in sales.” Walmart-owned Sam’s Club, Costco’s most direct competitor, made about three times the profit on around half of the sales. The extra money to make its astronomical profit came from paying employees awful, poverty-level wages and laying off salaried employees left and right. Neoliberal writer Megan McArdle wrote on The Daily Beast in 2012 that “Costco has a more highly paid labor force—but that labor force also brings in a lot more money. Costco’s labor force… brings in three times as much revenue as a Walmart workforce paid somewhere between 50-60% of that.” McArdle goes on to point out that Costco and Walmart/Sam’s Club stores are structured entirely differently, from the products they offer to their customer base. But they remain the same kind of store, with the same kind of employees.

“Employees,” write Schwartz and Porath, “are vastly more satisfied and productive, it turns out, when four of their core needs are met: physical, through opportunities to regularly renew and recharge at work; emotional, by feeling valued and appreciated for their contributions; mental, when they have the opportunity to focus in an absorbed way on their most important tasks and define when and where they get their work done; and spiritual, by doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose at work.” They also note that while upper management is interested in helping their employees attain happiness at the workplace, they’ve got no clue how to go about doing that. (Schwartz made similar points in a 2013 blog post on The New York Times’ website when the Gallup survey was released). Until employers realize that boosting employee satisfaction is directly tied to an increase in profits, American workers won’t be happy for a good, long while.


  • CrankyFranky

    and maybe a note to employers from something I read in today’s articles – ‘wanna be happy ? give money away !’ – employers could start by giving more of their hard-earned profits to their employees – as wages – as recognition for their employees’ hard work …

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