A recent survey of 57,000 workers revealed a stunning statistic: employees were much happier and more satisfied at the height of the pandemic (when we were locked down and fearing for our lives) than they are today. This year alone the numbers plummeted. And it's not just a single survey. In July, Gallup found that over 80% of Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going across the board - at work and beyond.
American workers are unhappy. Full stop. Some “experts” argue they shouldn't be: unemployment is low, wages are strong, and the majority of workers enjoy their day-to-day work. But these are facts and unhappiness is a feeling. And despite the widespread belief that work and business are defined by objectivity and statistics, feelings are real, contagious and sometimes dangerous. Even cataclysmic economic events (like the Great Depression) can be surprisingly influenced by viral stories that drive them. In a supposedly rational and efficient marketplace, belief is more powerful than fact. In the workplace, the same is true. Our stories, behaviors and memes shape an environment that nurtures misery and invites despair: the great resignation, quiet quitting, pervasive burnout and more. Finding our way to a more hopeful narrative is challenging, especially because we have plenty of reasons to be frustrated.
For all the “positive” stats experts trot out, there’s even more gloomy data. Over 600,000 employees were laid off across sectors in the first 9 months of 2023, with technology jobs hit hardest of all. The way we work (and where) remains uncertain. Organizational commitment to inclusion and wellbeing wavers. AI threatens to leave more of us behind than we ever thought possible. And these realities are set against a global backdrop of war, political polarization and unrest. The prevailing narratives of 2023 are a dangerous cocktail of facts, perceptions, fears and dashed expectations.
Let’s be clear: it's not enough to change the narratives. We have to shine a bright light on the conditions that cause employee unhappiness. It starts with recognizing that our collective unhappiness is not a petty complaint, it’s the canary in the coal mine telling us that disaster is looming. Here are three areas that need urgent attention to avoid workplace imbalances turning into explosions.
- The Battle Over RTO
The battle over where we work is far from over. At its core is a principle most human resource professionals know well: taking away a benefit is worse than never having given it at all. It breeds resentment and frustration. It doesn't matter that companies didn't intentionally provide the flexibility Covid required. Here we are and it's not going well. Recent studies report that mandated RTO policies create higher levels of attrition and remain the biggest source of conflict among leaders. Leaders have been caught short, forced to make decisions driven by opinions and emotion rather than by data. In fact, 80% of leaders report they might have made different choices had they had more insight into space usage, workplace needs and employee attendance. We can't be surprised when decisions made emotionally yield emotional responses.
Flexible work actually works and makes people happier. And leaders know it – in late 2022, 75% of managers believed that flexible work did not impede productivity. But 96% of US executives admitted to their proximity bias, being likelier to notice the contribution of employees when they are in the office. Where and how you work should start and end with what you actually do, not with a binary choice by a leader who prefers the office. Engaging teams to judge their own needs would be a good place to start: how much work is done individually or in teams? Are the teams large or small and do they need special resources? When decisions are made arbitrarily from the top, without regard to the lived experiences of the people doing the work, workers will naturally feel betrayed and unhappy.
- The Crawl To Gender Parity
The percentage of women in managerial and leadership roles has climbed modestly in the last five years. But it’s far too soon to declare victory. Although women represent 48% of the entry level workforce, they represent only 28% of the C-suite. And while they hold a slowly increasing number of Fortune 500 Board seats (30% in 2022, up from 26.5% in 2020), the recent OpenAI ouster of its two women board members, both replaced by men, created an unfortunate optic to counter that progress. Women earn only 82% of men’s wages for the same jobs, a number that hasn't budged in 20 years.
The closer we inch toward equality, the farther it seems. The World Economic Forum’s prediction that we are 131 years from full gender parity was a gut punch to working women, making progress to date seem trivial. More sobering still was Ipsos’ 2023 report that, despite a slight uptick in optimism about women’s career trajectories, over 50% of men and women believe that women’s equality asks too much of men. While over 60% still believe that women won’t achieve equality unless men take active steps to support it, the report questions how long they will. Add to these statistics Covid’s very real and disproportionate impact on working mothers and families, it’s no wonder women are unhappy.
- The Case Of The Disappearing DEI
After his shocking death, George Floyd’s young daughter said, “My daddy changed the world.” And we all wanted her to be right. Despite the threat of Covid, people took to the streets, determined to show that he hadn't died in vain. Companies doubled down, making sweeping commitments to increase diversity and champion inclusion and belonging. It was a “this time with feeling” moment of mythic proportion. But the effort was sadly short lived. Even before the Supreme Court’s decision eradicating affirmative action in higher education sent ripples of uncertainty in corporate America, the energy for DEI efforts had begun to falter. Phrases like DEI fatigue described both the outsized burden felt by people of color to help others understand their lived experiences and a growing fear among white workers that DEI would leave them devalued or disadvantaged. As companies retrench, their diversity pledges seem disingenuous. And employees feel shortchanged.
As a standalone sidecar initiative, DEI was always doomed to fail. With economic uncertainty triggering belt-tightening initiatives, many companies reduced their investments and let their DEI professionals go. But the business case for diversity is stronger than ever. Studies show that when employers communicate and demonstrate the value of diversity and inclusion, their employees are more engaged. And companies with diverse teams, especially diverse leadership teams, outperform their peers by as much as 39%. Despite these promising outcomes, a lot of companies seem to have lost interest. It’s hard to feel valued or happy in the face of such ambivalence.
The dark side of progress is that it raises expectations. Covid made the case for flexible work and there’s no turning back. Women’s advances encouraged ambition, with 96% of women expressing a desire to climb the corporate ladder. And inclusion isn’t an initiative, it’s table stakes: 80% of workers want to work for a company that values DEI. The happiness canary is gasping for breath as it sings its last song: the world of work isn’t working. And the future of work will not be found in the past (no matter how fondly we think we remember it). We can't drop our expectations, we must use them to find a better way. If 2023 was the year work was mean and miserable, let’s put our heads together and make 2024 the year we finally start to make work work for all of us.
First published on Forbes.com.