What causes unhappiness in the workplace?

Understanding the origins and solutions to a global pandemic of dissatisfaction is crucial in the current climate, says Dr Amina Aitsi-Selmi – with psychological safety key

About a billion people are unfulfilled at work. According to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace survey, 85 per cent of employees are ‘not engaged’ or ‘actively disengaged’, indicating that the majority of the global workforce is unhappy. They estimate a loss of $7trn in productivity. Western countries were among the worst, with only about 10 per cent of employees reporting that they felt engaged with their work. 

When I speak with individuals and organisations, two salient problems emerge: leaders wonder how they can communicate better to influence their teams, while employees wonder how to manage their energy and workloads. But the two groups are talking at cross-purposes. Why? Because the problem goes beyond the individual. 

Organisations, including the military, are increasingly recognising that the pressures of work in the 21st century are unrealistic and the complexity of scenarios bewildering. In other words, wider environmental and cultural factors need to be acknowledged alongside individual attitudes and behaviours. Studies a few years ago identified three key factors in stressful work environments: 

  • Low job control: A high workload with little control over it. This has been shown to lead to ‘learned helplessness’.
  • Effort-reward imbalance: Energy and commitment are high but the salary, promotion prospects, job security, esteem and recognition don’t match up. 
  • Rigid hierarchy: A social order that gives different levels of access to resources like money, power and connections elicits competitive survival responses in humans like manipulation, lying and selfishness that destroy trust and ultimately drain human resources. 

While specific interventions can be applied to address each factor separately, there is one element that improves the situation across the board: trust. We need a return to the basics of human relationship on which civilisations are built.

Transforming work culture in the 21st century 

Organisations often worry if they privilege positive relationships with employees, the company’s bottom line will be affected negatively. This simply is not true. Research by Google and others found the top five factors among outstanding teams were:

  • Psychological safety (trust): Can we take risks in this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed? 
  • Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high-quality work on time? 
  • Structure and clarity: Are goals, roles and execution plans in our team clear? 
  • Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us? 
  • Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe the work we’re doing matters?

Ignoring the latest findings will keep organisations in a ‘success trap’ where they fail to evolve beyond outdated work culture built on authoritarian, profit-focused principles rather than human relationships. This is a route to further unhappiness for all.

Creating psychological safety

We tend to like those who have similar values and beliefs to us. But as wider political and cultural trends have shown, we need to learn to communicate and work with those who are different. Building trust goes beyond identifying things in common. It means differences are not seen as a threat. There are two complementary ways to do this: cultivating open-mindedness, and dismantling unhelpful beliefs, biases and assumptions. 

The problem is old beliefs and assumptions that influence our behaviour are often subconscious; ie they are a blind spot. Because beliefs such as ‘you can’t trust anyone’ may have helped us in the past, they become embedded in our memory and keep us stuck. But we can learn to spot these and break out of this success trap for ourselves and others through transformational coaching conversations. Here are three suggestions for what organisations can do:

  • Slow down to speed up: Exhausted employees who feel undervalued are unlikely to perform at their best, let alone support work culture transformation. Improvements can be achieved simply through slowing down the pace of communication and activity to focus on what is truly important. Leaders at McKinsey & Co found that when top teams slowed down, they were able to dig deeper into the challenges they faced and reached their objectives more quickly. They dealt more effectively with increased complexity and obstacles and used less energy.
  • Create conversations by design rather than default: The only way strangers can find a way to cooperate and work together is through meaningful dialogue and being present to each other’s needs. Communicating in a virtual world requires even more presence because body language cues (which represent 93 per cent of communication) are more subtle. This may mean learning to pause and listen, for extroverts; and a willingness to speak up and be more explicit, for introverts. 
  • Set the tone from the top: Leaders must be able to model the behaviours they expect in the organisation. During the 2008 recession, the CEO of a US manufacturing company who put the ‘heartcount’ before the ‘headcount’ and avoided making people redundant doubled the company’s financial target within two years. The tone he set encouraged everyone to protect each other’s earnings and company morale was boosted.

According to a Gallup report: “The new workforce is looking for things like purpose, opportunities to develop, ongoing conversations, a coach rather than a boss, and a manager who leverages their strengths rather than obsesses over their weaknesses. They see work and life as interconnected, and they want their job to be a part of their identity.”

As the world continues to change through major disruptions including technological and biological, new research can help us understand what makes work fulfilling. The past few decades have dramatically improved physical safety for employees. Now we can focus on creating psychological safety to unleash our full human potential. 

Dr Amina Aitsi-Selmi is a specialist adviser, coach and author of The Success Trap