The Sharp Drop-Off In Worker Happiness—And What Your Company Can Do About It

A friend of mine resigned his long-time bank management job this week to take early retirement. I learned about it on Facebook.

As I began reading his announcement, I fully expected it to be an animated recounting of all the new hobbies he planned to pursue and exotic trips he intended to take. But it quickly became clear that this was no ordinary farewell note. He was truly upset about ending his career prematurely and wanted everyone close to him to understand why.

It was painful to discover that my former colleague had grown profoundly disheartened by the way his organization’s leadership had been treating him. With over two decades of service behind him, he called it quits simply because he couldn’t take it anymore.

"I felt like no one cared about me as a person there, and finally decided to extricate myself from the grind. I know many of you feel the same way now in your jobs…trapped and unappreciated."

There was a sense of relief in his words, as if I was reading about someone who had been imprisoned, found an escape route, and wanted to show others the way to freedom.

"You may not be able to retire quite yet like me, but please do yourself a favor and look for something more satisfying. It might take a while (it took me eight months once I made the decision), but it’s been so worth it. If you're old like me, then think about early retirement. If you're young, look for a more satisfying, fulfilling career path. Don't let these companies drain off your sense of worth, pride, health, energy, honesty and ethics. Are you listening [XYZ Bank]*? Of course you're not."

I share his words as another illustration that our common approach to workplace leadership is failing. And experts have been trying to tell us this for years.

New York’s Conference Board, a century-old research firm, began studying employee satisfaction and engagement 25 years ago. Their work shows that worker happiness has fallen every year since—in good economic times and bad. Today, over half of American workers effectively hate their jobs.

But it’s the past four years that have brought employee discontent to new and highly charged levels.

"People were already unhappy, but the recession years have made things much worse," says John Gibbons, formerly of the Conference Board and now Vice President of Research and Development at the Institute For Corporate Productivity. "Whether we realize it or not, workers have been under constant duress. Because of scarce resources, few opportunities for development and promotions—not to mention the fact that people often have been required to do the work of more than one person—a lot of our workforce is burnt out. Employees across the country feel overworked, under-rewarded and greatly unappreciated."

The recession has been hard on managers too, no doubt. Delivering great customer service, and achieving KPIs and revenue goals all have been a tremendous challenge during this extended period of limited means.

But it’s clear that many leaders have lost sight of what matters most to people at work. Appreciation. Support. Recognition. Respect. And when people feel disillusioned and virtually convinced things have to be better somewhere else, they do what my friend did. They quit.

According to the U.S. Labor Department, 2.1 million people resigned their jobs in February, the most in any month since the start of the Great Recession.

Dating back to mid-2011, numerous studies have reported that at least one-third of the American workforce planned to jump ship in 2012. Since very little action has yet to be taken on that threat, however, those predictions have come to be seen only as "Chicken Little exaggerations." Business leaders, therefore, have grown less concerned.

But the government’s new "Job Opening And Labor Turnover Survey," (JOLTS), holds the reminder why more employees haven’t (yet) departed. Jobs have remained scarce; 12.7 million people remain unemployed in the U.S. today, while only 3.5 million job openings exist. That translates into nearly four people chasing every one job—not including already employed workers seeking greener, and more respectful, pastures.

Simply because 2.1 million people were able to find new jobs, February’s mass exodus may prove to be the watershed moment when turnover becomes the problem it was predicted to be.

However, there still may be time for managers to re-recruit their employees before they leave. This won’t be easy and it will most definitely require a significant change in leadership practices. Here are three things leaders should learn quickly and never forget:

1. What makes people happiest in their jobs is all profoundly personal. "Do I work for an organization whose mission and methods I respect?" "Does my boss authentically advocate for me?" "Is the work I do meaningful?" "Am I afforded sufficient variety in my day?" "Do I feel valued and appreciated for all the work that I do?"

We know that all these matter more to people than their compensation—and workers generally don’t quit jobs when these basic needs are met. According to a worldwide Towers Watson study, the single highest driver of employee engagement is whether or not workers feel their managers are genuinely interested in their well-being. Today, only 40% of workers believe that.

2. People only thrive when they feel recognized and appreciated. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, "Why Appreciation Matters So Much," Tony Schwartz reminds us that all employees need to be praised, honored, and routinely acknowledged for their efforts and achievements. Consequently, leaders must allow themselves to manage more from their hearts.

Our brains are great at building strategies, managing capital, and analyzing data. But it’s the heart that connects us as human beings, and its what’s greatly lacking in American leadership today. This is what now must change.

3. Your employees will stay if you tell them directly you need them, care about them, and sincerely plan to support them. Any time someone quits a job for a reason other than money, they’re leaving in hope that things will be better somewhere else. So, everyone who works for you must be made to feel that they matter. Plan one-on-one meetings and re-discover the dreams each person has at work. Tell people directly how valuable they are to you. To be successful, all your future behavior must demonstrate to your employees that their best career move is to remain working for you.

Being human and treating one another with dignity and respect is something the heart already knows to do. Leaders would all do well to follow it.

*His former employer, one of the U.S.’s largest financial institutions.

Mark C. Crowley is a former National Sales Manager for WaMu Investments, where he was named its Leader of the Year. He’s the author of Lead From The Heart: Transformational Leadership For The 21st Century; follow him on Twitter at @MarkCCrowley.

[Image: Flickr user Vinoth Chandar]

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  • Boss Topia

    Mark, my heart goes out to this article and to your friend.  At our department within a Fortune 100 company, half the staff has either got fired, out on leave, or quit, due to the current management team.  It's very unfortunate because these were people that were happy working for the company, but no actions were taken for management's ineffectiveness.  There were complaints made to HR, but no avail.  So what happens now???
    I'm caught in a dilemma because I am applying to graduate school soon and the application wants a recommendation from an immediate supervisor.  I may not survive til then due to the environment... there goes the recommendation and vesting of the match portion of my 401k.  <--- (sounds all too familiar?) 
    Lack of employee voice is not solved by letting employees go and figuring that there are new hires lined up ready to take their place.  It is not solved by sugar coating the situation or simply ignoring it.  Companies can't just pump more money into the mix thinking that is what makes employees happy or to keep the employees quiet.  
    Companies need to address there is a problem, be transparent and open to solutions. This is not a sign of weakness - let's set the egos aside.  Employees can never be truly honest when there's fear of ramifications or if what they say doesn't matter anyways.
    With that said, I am Gen Y and I no longer want to sit on the sidelines.  I'd love some feedback to see if this, "", would be useful to anyone.  It's set to launch in the upcoming months.  Any input would be greatly appreciated as I see this lack of employee voice issue is growing and transcends industries!
    Twitter:  @Boss_Topia:twitter 

  • Crowleymcc

    Just checked to see your site and see it's not yet ready.  I totally agree with everything you wrote me.  The leadership/employee engagement problem in the US is not limited to any one industry.  It's a problem of all workplaces.  I wish you the best with your site.  Could be cool!  

  • Kelly Fragassi

    I cannot thank you enough for writing this article. These words are exactly what I've been thinking in my head and I have even shared them with people I know or fellow workers and even if they agree in their heads, its like they have all been brainwashed to think that being trapped and complying with corporate culture is the ONLY way to go in this world. I strive to be happy in all other facets of life and just because I need to pay my bills doesn't mean I need to settle for just any old job and deal with people's BS. This has actually renewed my energy to focus on finding my true career path. Thanks once again.

  • Happiness 1st

    There is more your company can do about it.

    Most individuals do not know how to be happy.  They also do not know the benefits of happiness.

    At Happiness 1st we teach happiness and have classes for employees.  Increasing employee happiness  has a great ROI in more areas than you can imagine.  

    In addition to increasing engagement and improving the work environment in a way nothing else can, happiness has the following benefits to individuals which translate into bottom line benefits for companies:

    emotions, optimism, and happiness have been scientifically shown to:


    Reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular
    disease by 50%[i]

    Provide a protective defense against breast

    Increase resilience "We contend that the
    cognitive broadening that accompanies states of positive emotion expands
    and improves the ways people cope during crises".[iii]

    Increase problem solving abilities and negotiating

    Have the potential to create chains of events
    that carry positive meaning for others, positive emotions can trigger
    upward spirals that transform communities into more cohesive, moral and
    harmonious social organizations.[v]

    Reduce stress 
    which is being researched as contributing to Alzheimer's disease[vi]
    and [vii]

    Be the best coping strategies for life's

    Significantly reduces risk of stroke (study only
    considered optimism)[ix]

    Improved relationships of all types[x]

    Increase success[xi]

    Research suggests that negativity in social
    relationships is an important predictor

    of (adverse) mental health in its own right[xii]

    [i] Boehm, J. K., & Kubzansky, L. D. The heart’s content: The
    association between positive psychological well-being and cardiovascular health. Psychological Bulletin, April 2012

    American Academy of Neurology (2001, July
    13).  Keeping up your overall health may
    keep dementia away, study suggests. 
    Science Daily.

    Cardiovascular disease is a
    risk factor for Alzheimer's so this risk is also reduced.  American Academy of Neurology (2001, July 13).  Keeping up your overall health may keep
    dementia away, study suggests. 
    Science Daily. 


    [ii] Ronit Peled, Devora Carmil, Orly Siboni-Samocha and Ilana Shoham-Vardi. Breast cancer, psychological
    distress and life events among young women. BMC Cancer

    [iii] What good are positive
    emotions in crisis? A prospective study of resilience and emotions following
    the terrorist attacks on the United
    States on September 11th, 2001. Fredrickson,
    Barbara L.; Tugade, Michele M.; Waugh, Christian E.; Larkin, Gregory R. Journal
    of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 84(2), Feb 2003, 365-376. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.84.2.365

    [iv] Content analyses
    revealed that physicians who felt good were faster to integrate case
    information and less likely to become anchored on initial thoughts or come to
    premature closure in their diagnosis. In yet another experiment, Isen and
    colleagues showed that negotiators induced to feel good were more likely to
    discover integrative solutions in a complex bargaining task. Overall, 20 years
    of experiments by

    Isen and her colleagues show that when people feel good, their
    thinking becomes more creative, integrative, flexible and open to
    information.   The Value of Positive
    Emotions.  Barbara L. Fredrickson, Ph.D.

    [v] The Value of Positive
    Emotions.  Barbara L. Fredrickson, Ph.D.

    [vi] Ioannis Sotiropoulos, Caterina Catania, Lucilia G. Pinto, Rui Silva, G.
    Elizabeth Pollerberg, Akihiko Takashima, Nuno Sousa, and Osborne F. X. Almeida. Stress Acts Cumulatively to
    Precipitate Alzheimer's Disease-Like Tau Pathology and Cognitive Deficits. Journal of Neuroscience, May 25, 2011;
    31(21):7840-7847 DOI:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0730-11.2011

    [vii] Robert A. Rissman, PhD, assistant professor of neurosciences, said the
    findings may at least partly explain why clinical studies have found a strong
    link between people prone to stress and development of sporadic Alzheimer's
    disease (AD), which accounts for up to 95 percent of all AD cases in humans.
    Robert A. Rissman, Michael A. Staup, Allyson Roe Lee, Nicholas J. Justice,
    Kenner C. Rice, Wylie Vale, and Paul E. Sawchenko. Corticotropin-releasing factor
    receptor-dependent effects of repeated stress on tau phosphorylation,
    solubility, and aggregation.  Proceedings
    of the National Academy of Sciences, 2012
    DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1203140109

    [viii] Joachim Stoeber and Dirk P. Janssen. Perfectionism
    and coping with daily failures: positive reframing helps achieve satisfaction
    at the end of the day. Anxiety, Stress & Coping, 2011

    [ix] Eric S. Kim, Nansook
    Park, Christopher Peterson. Health and Retirement Study. Stroke, 2011; DOI:10.1161/STROKEAHA.111.613448

    [x] Relationships have been linked to lower blood pressure, better immune
    functioning and decreases in the length of hospitalizations, the authors write,
    citing previous studies. Social contact has also been linked to oxytocin, the
    bonding hormone, which regulates stress. 
    This is excerpted from a study by Prof. Holt-Lunstad who co-authored a
    large-scale report on mortality and social relationships, which was released on
    July 2010 and published in journal PLoS Medicine. The report looks at 148
    studies involving 308,849 people. The average age was 64. The participants were
    evenly split between the sexes, and followed for an average of 7.5 years.  They found close relationships correlated to
    3.7 more years of life.  Conversely, a
    relative lack of social ties is associated with depression and later-life
    cognitive decline, as well as with increased mortality. One study, which
    examined data from more than 309,000 people, found that lack of strong
    relationships increased the risk of premature death from all causes by 50% — an
    effect on mortality risk roughly comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a
    day, and greater than obesity and physical inactivity.

    [xi]" A decade of research in the business world proves that
    happiness raises nearly every business and educational outcome: raising sales
    by 37%, productivity by 31%, and accuracy on tasks by 19%, as well as a myriad
    of health and quality-of-life improvements"Shawn Achor, Former Harvard
    Professor and author of The Happiness Advantage.

    [xii] Rook, 1984; Sandler
    & Barrera, 1984 

  • roblimo

    Nobody wants what they have, only what somebody else has. I was forcible retired -- after I'd found a job following a long period of unemployment -- by a pair of heart attacks in rapid succession that left me with my cardiac output reduced to the point where it's hard for me to stay away more than six or seven hours at a stretch, and with full cognitive function for only about five hours out of 24. So I collect disability and do as much freelance -- writing and video production -- work as I can handle. 

    I'm one of the people for whom hobbies and "work" were always the same, which is obviously not true of most Americans. Oh, well. We play the hands we're dealt. 

    And one thing: where I live (Bradenton, FL), a lot of "retired" people own art galleries or work at jobs they've chosen for fulfillment more than for money. Or they do volunteer work. Being "retired," if you have any income at all, give you time to write poetry or perfect your kite-flying or beer-drinking or guitar skills... 

  • Shawn

    Wow. Awesome post. All the questions you asked for what makes people happiest in their jobs are great! If you don't answer all of these questions with a "yes" then you should try to make a change or move on. 

  • Cath Chisholm

    Appreciation. Support. Recognition. Respect - 4 words that when it is lacking in our companies and their leaders has a profound negative effect on our confidence, competence and composure.  

  • Robert K Baulch

    AMEN!  I have found among the small business clients I work with the lack of genuine interest in employees is among the most common and troubling problems.  Don't managers understand that the mud runs downhill to customers?  If employees feel unrecognized then what type of reception do customers get?

  • Skip Mendler

     I'd say one of the main things that managers can do to retain employees is stop trying to make them do the work of 1.5 to 3 FTEs. (Check out the recent Mother Jones series called "The Great Speedup.") The urge to downsize organizations and force increased productivity by dangling the sword of unemployment over the heads of employees might increase the bottom line for a while - but it can only work for a while before things (like people, groups, and organizations) start breaking.