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The Plight of the Unhappily Employed

by Dan King

Photo of unhappy woman at workIf you’re one of the downhearted, downtrodden, downsized workers out there decrying your downfall from the company ladder, take solace. The people with jobs don’t seem to be much happier than you are.


Isn’t having a job, even if you hate it, better than not having a job at all?

Not much, apparently. According to the most recent study by the Conference Board, a New York-based nonprofit business group, only 48 percent of workers actually like their jobs. The rest are just keeping the seats warm, waiting for the economy to turn around. They show up for work each day, but they’ve already moved on psychologically.

In fairness, Americans of all ages and income brackets have the highest job satisfaction levels since the beginning of The Great Recession. However, the majority continue to be unhappy at work. At the same time, with employee turnover so low because of the slow economy, many employers have become complacent, reducing their efforts to make employees feel valued and appreciated. Employee morale is at an all-time low in many organizations.

For the short-term, having a job certainly beats not having a job. But “being employed” doesn’t automatically translate to “being happy.”

Having been on both sides, I can attest that “unhappy employment” is as damaging to your self-esteem and pride as “unemployment.” Joblessness, at least, forced a change, which was what I really wanted anyway, albeit with a bit more graceful transition.

Nor does “job security” bring about “job satisfaction.” If anything, employees feel they must work longer hours to impress their bosses and keep their jobs, trading off personal time for a false sense of job security. In the wake of restructuring, reengineering, and rightsizing, they’ve settled for just putting in their time, serving out their sentence, waiting for the “right” time to make their break. In this quest for safety and security, they’ve sacrificed the opportunity to exercise their talents, nurture their souls, or even have fun.

Almost forty years ago, in his groundbreaking book, “Working,” Studs Terkel described work as:

“… a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”

Despite the four decades that have passed since its publication, his words still resonate today. But our expectations about our employer-employee relationship have been altered dramatically since then — and smart companies know it.

Savvy employers know that most people in full-time jobs don’t expect to strike it rich through big salaries and stock options. Sure, they want a decent income, but they’re looking for other payoffs too, like greater control over their time, opportunities to do work they enjoy and enough time and energy to “have a life” when work is over. Respect for the needs and wishes of employees doesn’t cost a lot — but the payoffs will be high as the economy rebounds.

Whether you’re “unemployed” or “unhappily employed,” take reassurance in the knowledge that the job market is slowly changing for the better. Those employers who have been lulled into complacency by the demands of economic and competitive issues, will be unprepared for the major exodus of workers as things improve. In some sectors, it has already begun.

Likewise, how you as an employee handle the “down times” says a lot about your potential to seize opportunities during “up times.” The possibilities for greater career satisfaction and growth are omnipresent. Redirect your dissatisfaction into positive action and commit to improving your career situation now, one step at a time.

Good career decisions are not made in a crisis. Take time to assess your strengths and values, explore more meaningful options, and plan your strategy for improving your worklife. Because if you’re waiting for some spark to ignite your enthusiasm and bring about greater satisfaction in your work life, you’re not likely to find it by just sitting in a warm seat. Sooner or later, you’ll just end up in the hot seat!


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