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We need to talk about America’s ‘other’ employment crisis

Carolyn Everson, a VP at Facebook says, “Leaders at every level must move away from the command and control style that is so deeply rooted in our office cultures.”

We need to talk about America’s ‘other’ employment crisis
[Images: PIKSEL/iStock; Iryna Alekseienko/iStock]
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Months after a historic collapse in the U.S. job market, the quantity of jobs is tentatively rebounding. But as we slowly build back, leaders of public and private-sector organizations need to rethink the quality of these jobs and to reimagine the way we lead the people in them.

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The election may be over, but many divisions remain and so does a pandemic that will be with us for months to come. People are understandably anxious and afraid, which is why we need leaders—at every level—who are more vulnerable, empathetic, and generous. These are elements of the humane and enlightened leadership that unfortunately was in short supply even before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even a year ago, when the U.S. unemployment rate fell to 3.5%—the lowest in half a century—60% of workers described their job as “bad” or “mediocre” in a comprehensive survey conducted by Gallup. This is America’s other employment crisis.

One might reasonably ask: Who has time to worry about the experience of work when the unavailability of work now poses such an existential risk for millions of Americans?

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I say we all should worry about it. Because we all benefit from more enlightened leaders who embrace and exhibit the qualities that make us inherently human. But now, with so many consumed by fear and frustration, enlightened leadership is no longer a nice-to-have. It’s a need-to-have.

Well before the pandemic, the American Psychological Association found that our economy already was losing $500 billion a year and 550 million workdays to workplace stress. Another study from last year found that 96% of managers reported that their teams were feeling burned out sometimes. More than a quarter (28%) said their burnout ranked between 8 and 10 (with 10 being the most extreme). And that was before a global health crisis, social justice reckoning, and a seismic shift in our economy and culture that has only intensified our collective and personal anxieties.

Indeed, according to the Energy Project’s Energy Audit, a tool that analyzes physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual wellness, Americans are mentally and physically wiped. Before the pandemic, we—on average—were only 42% energized at work, which put us in the Energy Project’s “somewhat energized” category. Now, we’ve dropped down into their “fading” category, just one step above “burned out.”

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My point is that we must do more than get people back to work. We need to reimagine work: to make it more inclusive for people of color and Black people in particular; to provide more security and fulfillment; to welcome people into jobs where they feel valued, where their opinion counts, and where their accomplishment and advancement is not in a zero-sum competition with their life.

To deliver on this promise, leaders at every level must move away from the command and control style that is so deeply rooted in both our office cultures and our collective, deep dissatisfaction with them.

Indeed, our obsession with effective leadership—measured exclusively by hard performance and financial metrics—helps explain why another Gallup survey found that barely a third (31%) of U.S. workers said they are “engaged,” meaning involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and workplace.

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The only way to address this problem is through a more enlightened kind of leadership that cultivates healthier, happier people.

I started thinking about this in 2014, three years after Facebook hired me to lead its global advertising business. I was looking at results from our employee engagement survey that seemed positive. The people on my team liked their jobs, their coworkers, and their bosses. They felt good about the direction of their careers and the company.

But there was one finding I could not get out of my head.

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When people were asked, “How well are you able to manage your work and personal time?” two-thirds said, “Not well.”

That didn’t sit right with me. I didn’t want to build Facebook’s ad business on the backs of people who felt they needed to sacrifice everything else that mattered to them. So our global marketing team launched a major new employee development program that prioritized people’s overall well-being.

I also made changes in how I showed up as a leader: I started showing up as a full person. I became more open about my fears, my failures, and my family challenges along with my hopes and aspirations for all facets of my life. And I encouraged my team to do the same.

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It was the single most consequential leadership decision of my career. It fostered new bonds of trust and friendship. It made my team happier. It improved our performance.

I have been convinced that most people desperately want more enlightened, more open leaders. And now, as we all navigate this frightening new reality, I believe this more strongly than ever.

My feelings and my happiness—the feelings and happiness of my team—are inextricably linked to the success and growth of Facebook’s ad business. Happier employees deliver better results.

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And this is true for every organization.

According to one study from the University of Oxford, happy workers are 13% more productive. According to another, businesses with happy employees outperform their stock-market peers with a return on equity that rose 27.2% in the second quarter of 2020.

Do disillusioned workers want better pay and benefits? Of course they do, and many deserve more of both. But more than half of U.S. workers also report that they would choose a happier work environment over better pay. Almost 60% of people said they’d stay at a lower-paying job if it meant working for a great boss.

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People are looking for something more from their leaders, and it’s time we give it to them.

The coronavirus has forced businesses and governments to rethink and reinvent everything. Those of us privileged enough to still have our jobs feel it, personally, every day, as we imperfectly manage the chaos of our home offices.

But we must use this crisis as more than an opportunity to change where we work, or even what we do. We must change how we lead our teams and lead our lives—and put human health and happiness at the center. The survival and success of our organizations and our economy depend on it—and the mental health of our employees does too.

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Carolyn Everson is the vice president, Global Business Group at Facebook.