Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Unproductive (& UnHappy) Workplace

Work plays an important role in the lives of many persons. This is Part 2 of a three-part series on work and the workplace in the West. The first part was on Monday:  Men At Work: A Meaningful Life. Part 3 is scheduled for Friday.


Don't worry when you are not recognized, but strive to be worthy of recognition.

Abraham Lincoln
It's no secret that many people find their work life unhappy and unproductive; at any one time, at least half of all employees have expressed dissatisfaction with work. Countless surveys have shown and supported this assertion, and in the last forty years the situation has not improved. While some of the reasons cited in the past were boring menial tasks associated with working on a production-line system, such as in parts and product assembly (common, for example, today in China), in western industrialized nations, the chief problems cited are the workplace itself and centre on the interpersonal relations between employees and between managers and employees.

Many have called this situation a dysfunctional workplace [see here and here], which captures the essence of the problem. Considering that people spend a good part of the waking day at work, and good part of their lives working for pay or hire, work and the workplace becomes a central area of discussion. And more so when individuals are unhappy. Unhappiness translates easily enough to loss of productivity, a situation that happens often and easily enough in many workplaces. How productive a nation is remains a concern of industrialized nations.

Much of the unhappiness centres on a few things central to humans, including a loss of autonomy, a loss of dignity and a need for recognition, particularly for a job well done. Many workers today feel unappreciated and, of course, underpaid for the work that they do. Often under great pressure and strain. Poor relations between a manager and a subordinate can make the workplace unhappy, or certainly reduce its level of happiness and productivity.

This can be the fault of either the employee or the boss; at times, employees expect too much feedback or compliments, at other times, managers offer too little. It's also true that younger persons, for example, used to constant compliments on their performance from their many years of schooling, expect the same in the workplace. This is not always the case, and it can lead to unmet expectations and unhappiness.

A boss unfit for his or her position can make the workplace dysfunctional, and women are no better at being in positions of authority than men. In some cases, amongst women in female-dominated professions, they are often worse, as emotions give way and petty jealousies rise to the surface. Of course, there are many good organizations where employees are generally happy and productive. The benefits of a happy workplace are so numerous that one wonders why so few organizations make it a high priority. In a blog posting in Psychology Today, Ray B. Williams writes in "Wired for Success'"
Psychologist Martin Seligman, in his book, Authentic Happiness, cites his research on positive emotions among 272 employees during a study of their job performance for 18 months. He concluded that happier people got better performance evaluations and high pay. Along these lines, a large study of Australian youths, conducted over 15 years, concluded that happiness made gainful employment and higher income more likely. D. G. Myers, in The Pursuit of Happiness, says that compared to employees who are depressed or unhappy, happy employees have lower medical costs, work more efficiently and have less absenteeism.
This is undoubtedly true. I used to write articles on human-resource practices and procedures for business trade publications back in the 1990s. Absenteeism alone, for various reasons, including heath complaints and workplace stress,  accounts for tens of billions of dollars a year in loss productivity in both Canada and the U.S. [see here and here]. To reduce absenteeism and engender better workplace climates, organizations, in particular large organizations, have gone to great lengths to write policies and procedures that focused on workplace practices, including ways to better workplace harmony and reduce friction among workers.

While it's true that the policies themselves are often sound and good, it's not enough to have a comprehensive policy, which is often written to ward off any potential legal problems. You need good managers, since most workplace conflicts are a result of human interactions gone sour. In short, the problems are almost always human. In many cases, despite the best efforts of HR departments to find the right person for the job, mistakes happen—often in the choice of lower-level supervisor or upper management executive. These personnel mistakes are always costly.

More often than not, organizations place someone with the right technical skills as a manager with a supervisory role. It becomes a problem when he finds it difficult if not daunting to deal with people. Not every person has the natural inclination to have effective and humane interpersonal skills in the workplace. And, yes, knowing how to relate and motivate persons is an important skill, at times overlooked or given short shift in the process of hiring managers and executives. Given the many benefit of a happy and productive workplace, including happier and healthier workers, better customer service, and higher profits, it would make perfect sense that organizations look to the best organizations and try to follow their example.


  1. Some jobs are inherently less pleasant than others. These are frequently the jobs with the least prestige and the lowest salaries. Israel's kibbutzim were an attempt to raise the dignity of labor, but their success was minimal. Today Israel is one of many nations with guest workers. Perhaps one day we can create a society where the least satisfying work can earn the highest salaries, but I don't see how this can be done.

  2. Mechanization has helped make the workplace more palatable, but human problems remain. The more industrialized a society becomes, the greater are the demands for human appreciation.


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