American workers are feeling worse than ever about their jobs, according to Gallup polls, but the reason may be surprising. It’s not low (or no) raises, limited benefits or even longer work days that are making employees unhappy -- it’s the work they’re doing.
According to research from the Harvard Business School, doing meaningful work and making progress in it make people the happiest on the job.
For many of today’s employees, these two basic elements are missing, and that’s a problem, not only for employees, but for their companies. Unhappy employees are less productive and hurt the bottom line.
“When people don’t care about their jobs or their employers, they don’t show up consistently, they produce less, or their work quality suffers,” wrote Harvard professor, Teresa Amabile and researcher, Steven Kramer in a New York Times op-ed piece. The husband and wife team co-authored the book The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work.
On the other hand, workers were more likely to have new ideas on days when they were feeling happier.
The couple collected nearly 12,000 electronic diary entries from 238 employees in seven different companies. The entries revealed emotions that are usually kept hidden at work.
They found that one third of respondents were unhappy, unmotivated or both at work. Even worse, employees were often disgusted with their jobs.
But the researchers also found the single most important factor that engaged workers was making progress in meaningful work.
“As long as workers experience their labor as meaningful, progress is often followed by joy and excitement about the work,” they wrote.
Unfortunately, managers don’t recognize this as important. When Amabile and Kramer asked 669 managers from companies around the world to rank five employee motivators in terms of importance, they ranked “supporting progress” last.
The researchers believe that managers need to think more about supporting employees by removing obstacles, providing help, and acknowledging their efforts.
Though Amabile and Kramer focus on what managers need to do, their research can help employees better understand what they need—and can ask of their bosses—to be happier.
1. Have clear goals. Your boss needs to give you meaningful goals. You should understand what you’re working towards and why. Goals should be short-term and attainable, not vague and pie in the sky. First, try to clarify your own goals with the information you have.
“Then, find ways to get clarity from your supervisor. Ask and be prepared to state your reasons, and suggest ways that you can help your manager provide the clarity,” Amabile said.
2. Work autonomously. People need some independence to attain these goals. If you are being micromanaged, you’re less likely to be creative and think on your own. But that doesn’t mean you can’t ask for help when you need it.
3. Having resources, like materials and personnel. This is tough with all the cutbacks, but limited resources can lead to frustration and demoralization, not creativity. Sometimes, all that’s required is that your manager addresses some of your daily hassles. First, try to creatively find ways of making do with the resources you (and others in your team) have.
“Then, rally your team to ask the supervisor together, so the request isn’t coming from you alone,” Amabile said.
4. Have reasonable deadlines. "We found that in general, extreme time pressure is bad for creative productivity, but low-to-moderate time pressure is good," Amabile wrote.
If you have too many deadlines, discuss it with your boss. Otherwise, you’ll feel like you’re on a treadmill.
5. Learn from problems. This means your supervisor and co-workers will not ridicule you if you try something that doesn’t work out, but instead will look at it analytically and try to figure out what went wrong and why.
“Coworkers can make it ‘safe’ for each other to discuss problems in the work and admit mistakes, by establishing norms of openly discussing failures to see what can be learned from them,” Amabile wrote.
Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist whose work appears in the New York Times, among other national magazines and websites. She has authored several health books, including "Perfect Hormone Balance for Fertility." Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.