Perhaps you’ve heard: A lot of people are epically unhappy at work. Reasons cited include low raises, no training, and poor management. All of these seem to overlook a much more basic workplace issue: a lot of jobs suck. A paltry raise, no chance to gain new skills, and a bad boss just make a fundamentally bad job worse.
It’s no great feat to understand why people with low wages and terrible bosses are unhappy. It’s more difficult to explain why so many people with a good salary and a nice manager are unhappy too. Research from Jean M Twenge Ph.D., social scientist and author of Generation Me, says there are three possible reasons:
- Our relationships and community ties are weaker.
- We’re more focused on goals such as money, fame, and image, which is correlated with anxiety and depression.
- Our expectations are too high, probably because of the emphasis on “you can be anything you want to be” and highly positive self-views.
These reasons ring true to me, but there's more. To understand our chronic unhappiness at work, we have to look closer at the nature of that work. I believe our chronic unhappiness comes from a lack of clear purpose and feeling disconnected from what or who (outside of ourselves) is benefitting from our work: our customers. I use the term “customer” to refer to those who benefit from the work we do. People like to feel needed, and they want to believe that their work is important.
Here’s the problem: We define jobs as work that is done for money. In fact, there are two categories.
- Work done for money that directly creates value for someone.
- Work done for money that indirectly creates value for someone. In these “squishy middle” jobs, both the value created and person benefiting isn’t always obvious. These jobs include all kinds of roles such as internal reporting, project management, performance measurement, and so on. It is any work that doesn't clearly benefit somebody outside of the agency.
These internal jobs didn’t used to exist, but they've exploded in number over the last 30 years. This is because the concepts of process standardization, quality control, and data-driven decisions that prompted massive improvements in manufacturing also bled into staffing and management. Seeing an uptick in production, companies and government alike had the bright idea to apply the same techniques used on machines to the human workforce. Ideas like Lean Six Sigma and standardized management and oversight caught on.
As a result, many relatively new jobs serve no obvious benefit to a paying customer (or taxpayers). These jobs sprouted from well-intentioned efforts to improve efficiency and profitability, but had the unintended consequence of stripping out the sense of purpose that used to be inherent in work.
People tend to assume a job is worthwhile, because otherwise it wouldn't exist. From the employee’s perspective, if an agency decides to pay someone to do a job, that job must be needed. Why else would they spend the money? And from the employer's perspective, if applicants submit resumes (and sometimes in large numbers), then people want to do that job. Since both employer and employee assume the other knows what a good job looks like, neither is quick to question if it actually is a good or even necessary job.
Both sides fail to ask and answer a more fundamental question: Is it important? Is it needed? Will normal humans be happy doing it?
At some point a “good job” came to mean one that offers fair compensation for your labor with relative safety and security. If you tell your grandfather that you have a “good job,” he’ll be happy. Tell a girlfriend and she’s likely to ask, “But are you happy?” While there are generational differences in what each of us wants to get out of work, we’d likely all agree that saying you have a good job doesn’t necessarily tell me anything about your overall happiness with it.
People in jobs with a direct customer connection can say: I noticed you might need this, I designed it for you, I built it for you, I told you about it, I explained how to use it, I helped fix it when it broke, and I followed up to make sure you were happy with it. Innovators, designers, engineers, marketers, sales people, trainers, and customer service reps of all kinds have jobs likes this, with clear purpose and benefit to the customer.
Roles outside of this set that include overseeing, coordinating, reporting, or measuring anything have a more tenuous connection with the customer. Because they’re one or more steps removed, these employees are forced to define for themselves who they’re serving or what impact they're making. The answer they come up with is rarely as satisfying as seeing the face of another person who has benefited from your work.
So, what’s the solution? Here are some practical steps both employers and employees can take to make jobs more purposeful, more satisfying for employees, and all-around better.
For employers, start with a review of all of the current job openings to determine which seem like unsatisfying jobs. Where are employees in the same or similar roles most unhappy and why? What can be done proactively to make this a better job before somebody has it? Often this can be easily fixed by increasing direct customer-employee interaction.
For those currently employed and unhappy, determine what changes would be required to your job today to make it feel more purposeful. Often this means increasing the time you spend directly with the people benefitting from your work. Even in internal roles, there are opportunities to join meetings or accompany someone from the delivery team, field office, or contact center to meet real people and get a better understanding of their issues and concerns firsthand.
The onus is on both employers and employees to work together to create better jobs.
Robin Camarote is a strategic planning consultant and the co-founder of Federal MicroConsulting.