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Unhappiness on the Job: The Pandemic Variant That's Spreading Like...Well COVID

by David Wyld 3 months ago in business

A recent major national survey paints a disturbing picture of Americans’ negative attitudes toward their jobs. Here’s a look at what this means for employers today and what can be done about the “unhappy worker.”

Unhappiness on the Job: The Pandemic Variant That's Spreading Like...Well COVID
Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

Introduction: The New Normal of Work

All is back to normal - at least, sort of. We’re going back to work. We’re eating out again. We’re traveling again. We’re going back to sporting events, concerts, and more. And soon, the kids will be going back to school. There’s every reason to believe that the COVID-19 pandemic is (mostly) behind us and that life, as we knew it back in the “glory days” of 2019, is fast returning to the way things were before the pandemic - just with the threat of that “Delta Variant” that we see so much about today that has the potential to derail the progress we have seen through the mass vaccination campaign in the United States (well, at least in the “Blue States”).

And yet, there is a looming employment crisis in America today. No, it is not found in the constant signs you see for restaurants and retail stores, all seemingly struggling to hire workers, offering starting pay higher than ever before, along with unprecedented perks and even signing bonuses…

No, it is not what has been dubbed “The Great Resignation,” as a wave of workers, chastened by their pandemic experiences, are increasingly reconsidering their priorities and goals in life and changing jobs, if not careers…

And no, it is not the fact that as the pandemic has subsided (for the most part), there are more and more rude, angry, belligerent customers that must be dealt with in almost all consumer-facing environments, from on the ground in retail stores and restaurants...

… to passengers in the sky as travel resumes…

These are merely signs of the times and symptoms of what is likely THE big, underlying problem regarding work in the United States in 2021. This is the fact that American workers are less happy and in truth, more unhappy, on the job than at any point in recent history!

By arash payam on Unsplash

Unhappy at Work

Americans’ unhappiness with their jobs was highlighted in a recent report released by the data analyst firm CivicScience. Their researchers have been tracking Americans’ attitudes toward work for some time, and in their most recent survey period (June-July 2021), the levels of both worker “happiness” and “unhappiness” hit new record levels. Each month, CivicScience conducts a large national survey looking at Americans’ attitudes toward their jobs. As can be seen in Figure 1 (How Happy Are You in Your Current Job?: Overall) below, less than half (47%) of all Americans are “happy” with their current job, while 21% report being “unhappy” in their present employment situation. Interestingly, 32% of those surveyed responded to this question by reporting that they were not “currently employed for pay” - which is, in fact, significantly lower than the approximately 39% of the adult population that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is not currently participating in the workforce.

Figure 1: How Happy Are You in Your Current Job?: Overall

Source: CivicScience, “Overall Job Happiness on Steady Decline, Maybe Linked to Return to In-Office Work,” July 2021 (Used with permission)

Taken in isolation, one might think that having just half of all workers say that they were happy overall in their present jobs might be, if not great, an “okay-ish” indicator for management in all organizations. However, as can be seen in Figure 2 (How Happy Are You in Your Current Job?: Monthly Percentages), there appear to be disturbing trends developing in regards to worker happiness/unhappiness since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last year. First, on the happiness side of the equation, Americans have been rather inconsistent in regards to how “happy” they are with their current employment situations, with the percentage answering “happy” to this question bouncing between the low fifty and high forty percent range over the past year. However, today’s 46% of American workers is significantly down from both the January 2020 58% who responded that they were happy with their work and the pre-pandemic, February 2020 response of 53%. On the flip side, there has been a consistent upward trend of Americans reporting unhappiness with their current employment situations, as CivicScience reports that at present, a record high 22% of all of us say that we are unhappy at work. In fact, since the onset of the pandemic, the percentage of Americans saying that they were unhappy with their present employment situation has risen steadily, up over 80% from the pre-pandemic, February 2020 response of 12%!

Figure 2: How Happy Are You in Your Current Job?: Monthly Percentages

Source: CivicScience, “Overall Job Happiness on Steady Decline, Maybe Linked to Return to In-Office Work,” July 2021 (Used with permission)

This finding should be of very real concern to managers everywhere, as the fact that worker unhappiness is rising means that there will likely be not just more employee turnover to come (especially as wage competition increases), but other problems as well. These include some very real managerial headaches, including issues with recruitment and hiring (which is already difficult and will likely become even more acute) and with customer service (which will likely become even more problematic).

Are there particular subsets of the “worker class” that are more unhappy than others at the present time? The current CivicScience survey results provide insights to help answer this question, looking at relative job happiness/unhappiness by gender, with men being happier with their work than women (see Figure 3: How Happy Are You in Your Current Job?: By Gender).

Figure 3: How Happy Are You in Your Current Job?: By Gender

Source: CivicScience, “Overall Job Happiness on Steady Decline, Maybe Linked to Return to In-Office Work,” July 2021 (Used with permission)

And not surprisingly, those with more education (see Figure 4: How Happy Are You in Your Current Job?: By Educational Level)...

Figure 4: How Happy Are You in Your Current Job?: By Educational Level

Source: CivicScience, “Overall Job Happiness on Steady Decline, Maybe Linked to Return to In-Office Work,” July 2021 (Used with permission)

… and higher pay (see Figure 5: How Happy Are You in Your Current Job?: By Income Level) were happier with their current employment situations than their counterparts.

Figure 5: How Happy Are You in Your Current Job?: By Income Level

Source: CivicScience, “Overall Job Happiness on Steady Decline, Maybe Linked to Return to In-Office Work,” July 2021 (Used with permission)

By Isaac Smith on Unsplash

Analysis

To this strategic management consultant and professor, the findings presented by CivicScience portray a very challenging environment for management of all organizations, both large and small alike, to navigate over the coming months and even years ahead. All in all, we are in a period of great flux in the American workplace, with uncertainty, instability, and even incivility being the buzzwords of the day. Employees are struggling not just with work-life balance as never before, but they are increasingly taking entirely new and really unprecedented attitudes toward the whole notion of work and employment. Chastened by the pandemic and the economic, social, and familial upheaval it brought about, more and more employees - not matter their rank, their pay, their position, their gender, etc. - are changing their attitudes toward their jobs AND their employers.

And so there will be more “flux” to come, and employers will need to respond in ways that are tangible and meaningful to workers to help retain them in the fold. Does that mean more money (i.e. wages)? Yes. Does that mean more perks? Yes. Does that mean more freedom to work from home, or rather, to work as one might prefer to work? Yes. However, it is NOT a certainty that merely throwing more money and more flexibility at the problem will “work.” Rather, I believe that there may be something more profound going on today, as more and more workers are questioning how, where, when, and for whom they commit their time, their talents, and their “mental and physical bandwidth” today than ever before. And so at the end of the day, companies will need to find ways to better align themselves with their employees and to have their employees find congruence with their employers. Otherwise, with growing unhappiness in the employee ranks, the managerial “headaches” will only compound and today’s issues with service levels, reliability, customer satisfaction, etc. will only grow exponentially.

So, the matter is now up to you. What should you and your organization do to better respond to a very fast changing employment equation today? How can you work to improve the happiness of the employees who work with you and work under you, and even work to make your bosses more happy? Happiness today may indeed be the most important - and neglected - management metric there is, so what can you do to make happiness happen - today?

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About David Wyld

David Wyld is a Professor of Strategic Management at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana. He is a management consultant, researcher/writer, publisher, executive educator, and experienced expert witness. You can view all of his work at https://authory.com/DavidWyld.

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business

David Wyld

Professor, Consultant, Doer. Founder/Publisher of The IDEA Publishing (http://www.theideapublishing.com/) & Modern Business Press (http://www.modernbusinesspress.com)

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