What makes people unhappy at work

Unhappy at workWe’ve looked at what we think makes us happy at work but doesn’t. We’ve looked at what actually does work.

But what actively makes people unhappy at work? What are the most important things to avoid? Let’s take a look at that.

Bad management

In the case where a board can’t figure out to depose self-obsessed, autocratic and power-hungry managers, we’ll probably se in the future that these leaders will be deposed by their own employees, who will leave for better workplaces with better leaders and leadership values, that create a better space for the employees’ personal goals and life visions to unfold.

This will leave the managers who use hierarchical leadership, control systems and autocratic leadership values without significant access to getting employees. Ie. a leadership with no followers, which is both pathetic and useless.

Bad relations between employees and their managers is the single greatest cause of workplace unhappiness. Indeed, the majority of employees who quit do so because of their immediate manager

Bad leaders underestimate the value of happiness at work, and are often unhappy themselves. Good leaders, on the other hand, enjoy their work, enjoy the people they work with and actively focus on making themselves and their employees happy at work.

– Alfred Josefsen, CEO of Irma

You tell’em, Alfred!

Bad leaders lose their employees to good leaders and are left to practice their autocratic, power-obsessed leadership style on no-one. That’s leadership Darwinism. That’s survival of the happiest.

One company has taken this to its logical conclusion, and have implemented two practices, which together virtually eliminate bad leadership. At Semco, a company of 3.000 people based in Sao Paulo, Brazil, all leaders are evaluated by their employees twice a year. Each leader gets a total score between 0 and 100, and all scores are posted for all employees to see. And here’s the kicker: Employee are free to choose their own bosses.

This creates an enormous pressure on leaders to constantly improve, and also means that bad leaders who fail to heed their employees’ feedback quickly find themselves without followers.

Old vs. new leadership

So what kind of leader makes people happy at work? It’s really not that complicated. A good leader:

  • Likes her people
  • Has time for her employees
  • Listens to and understands her people
  • Praises and gives feedback
  • Is happy in her job and makes her employees happy too

Again, it’s about relations between people. This is good news and bad news. Good news because it means that what leaders need to do to make their employees happy at work is not complicated.

The bad news is that we used to think that good leaders:

  • Made fast decisions
  • Cut to the chase
  • Aportioned resources
  • Made plans and follows up

Those are two quite different skillsets. They can be combined, but many people excel in one or the other, and most leaders today have become leaders because of their competence in the “old??? skillset. Also, the skills needed to make people happy at work are highly personal – in many people they are ingrained rather than learned, making it hard for leaders to migrate from the old leadership style to the new one.

But now leaders face pressure to create an innovative and creative culture. To allow employees to realize their full potential. To motivate rather than command. To coach rather than control. All of which is possible only when employees are happy at work, meaning leaders must learn a new leadership style.

At the same time, there’s very little established education or training available in the new leadership style. Few MBA programs focus on the new style of leadership. So I say: Let’s cut our leaders and managers some slack. Many of them are trying. Let’s not forget that this is new for everyone, them too.

However, managers who don’t ultimately get it, need to go. Nothing is more toxic to a happy workplace than a leader who makes his people unhappy but is allowed to keep his position anyway.

Stress and overwork

I used to work at a company with a strong “overwork??? culture. After two years obsessing about getting in at 7, leaving at 7 (and then working even more from home), my wife had a baby. I took a week off, then felt justified in limiting my work to 40 hours for the next couple of months (due to my lack of sleep and need to help around the house).

In that two-month period I realized I accomplished exactly as much and was exactly as busy as I was when I worked ~60 hours/week. From then on, I was in at 8, out at 5, aside from the occasional large project, and I completely stopped working at home. I was never happier, more organized or more successful in that job.

With this peace of mind and free time, I was able to invest a few hours in learning the GTD (Getting Things Done) system, learning more about my field and getting more involved in professional and community organizations. (This may have averaged about 3 hours/week at the max.) All that I learned in this time enabled me to get a new job and a significantly higher salary.

Meanwhile, when I talk to employees at the old company, they’re bragging about the 75-hour workweeks and discussing which anti-anxiety meds they take.
(Comment on positivesharing.com)

Today’s work environment is one of near-constant busy-ness. Nobody has an empty in-tray these days. Very few of us can “clear the desk??? and then go home. Instead there’s always one more thing we could do, and many of us feel, or indeed are, permanently behind.

This leads to people working longer hours and stressing more because they feel inadequate. And make no mistake: Too much stress makes people sick, and in extreme cases it is lethal. The japanese even have a word for it: Karoshi. Death by overwork.

The interesting thing is also that stress makes people less efficient, so they get less work done, fall further behind, and become even more stressed. That’s a vicious cycle right there.

I remain convinced that most of us, a few supermen and -women excepted, accomplish only a little more in 60, 80 or 100 hours a week than we do in 40. And while we may get more work done in 80 hours than in 40, there’s also a cost. We get:

  • Less creativity, because it’s easier to be creative when you’re relaxed
  • Worse relations with co-workers because we’re too busy to connect with people
  • Less time with friends and family, which recharges the batteries and gives you new thoughts and ideas
  • Less openness to new ideas – there’s no time!
  • Less happiness at work – because of all of the above

Or as one top executive puts it:

You can always find reasons to work. There will always be one more thing to do. But when people don’t take time out, they stop being productive. They stop being happy, and that affects the morale of everyone around them.

– Carisa Bianchi, chief strategy officer of TBWA\Chiat\Day


An august 2000 survey of 1.100 american employees from various organizations concluded that organizational red tape, cumbersome work rules, and tangled processes take up an extraordinary amount of time. On average, workplace bureaucracy steals 9.4 hours from the weekly schedule. For one in five people, more than 16 hours per week go down the bureaucracy drain.

Furthermore, there is a clear correlation between workplaces with more bureaucracy and workplaces people want to leave. In other words: People flee organizations burdened with red tape.

Source: http://www.meaningfulworkplace.com/survey/page4.html

As CEO of Oticon, Lars Kolind went on a war against bureaucracy in the company. This turned Oticon around from a marginal player to the world’s leading manufacturer of hearing aids.

In his excellent book “The Second Cycle, Winning the War Against Bureaucracy??? Kolind writes:

As organizations grow larger, older and more successful, they introduce more management layers, more departments, more procedures, plans, budgets, reports, meetings, traditions and the like.

This leads to management developing its own agenda, increasingly detached from employees and customers. It becomes more important to win awards than to care for customers and employees. Management loses touch with the business, which becomes increasingly complacent and even arrogant.

This all leads to less action, slower action and no action outside the well-known patterns.

Red tape kills the soul. There you are, an employee with a plan or a great idea, and the corporate rule book is holding you back against common sense and everything you know to be right.

That kind of thing makes people desperately unhappy at work.


It was like a cloud of evil had descended on the factory. Everyone was afraid of this evil.

I knew that I was being harassed and bullied, I felt like I was being forced in to resigning. Every reasonable step I took to resolve my situation was refused or worse I was totally ignored, all the time my treatment seemed to get harsher, I was given totally menial tasks, which when complained about would result in me being given physically impossible tasks.

To cut a long story short I eventually suffered a breakdown. This not only devastated me but all my family too. (Source: http://www.bullyonline.org/cases/case12.htm)

Bullying is fortunately fairly rare, but when it happens the effects are devastating. People break down mentally and physically, and can take years to recover.

Power games

That whole “Who people see me have lunch with is more important than what I actually do??? and “Getting ahead is more important than getting results??? mentality makes most people desparately unhappy at work. It’s true that some people flourish under these conditions, especially those with a more political mindset. But most people only notice that the wrong behavior and the wrong attitudes are being rewarded.

In the end employees stop caring, and they stop being happy at work.

21 thoughts on “What makes people unhappy at work”

  1. I’m not sure if I should be happy because some people start caring about good management, or unhappy because of one of the managers at work.

    Anyway. I read one article that I found very interesting. It contradicts the “praising” skill you mention, but it makes sense, and ends with a very good phrase: “To do a good job, people need a good job to do”

    For Best Results, Forget the Bonus

  2. Ups… sorry. I start reading this chapter first, and then the others. You may delete my previous comment if you like =P

    I’m really enjoying reading your book, by the way =)

  3. That’s cool jach. I agree with Alfie Kohn on his resistance to bonuses, raises and other prizes.

    But I can see from personal experience that genuine, heartfelt praise does make people happy.

    I’m really glad you enjoy the book! There’s much more coming up this week.

  4. Haven’t had time to finish reading this, but wanted to comment on what I’ve seen so far. The Semco illustration was great, but (way) to short. (Take a look at the non-fiction best sellers–like “Blink” which is about 60%+ illustration.) Tell how Semco came about, how it weathered the storms of economic downturn and then prospered and grew (because of it’s unique strategy). . . at minimum, include some statistics proving the Semco model is profitable. . . remember, people learn best by seeing, hearing, touching, feeling. . . let them experience this in your book.

    Good luck!

  5. Please please tell LG Eelctronics about it (I’m too scared). They need help, I am witnessing first hand the manager who spreads his misery and doesn’t acknowledge his staff.

  6. What about the “mean girl” mentality and/or cliques? My boss is an unbelievable snob and the other ladies in the office have voiced their dislike of her, yet, they lunch with her and participate in outside activities with her. The minute she leaves the office, they proceed to bash her. I cannot do this and ultimately have become the outsider. When the boss and her “girls” are together, they proceed to bash and talk about everyone and anyone. How can anyone work in this environment?

  7. i work at morrisons in uk and its bad i feel like im back at school being bullied by the manager,i would quit but there ay no work about and ive gotta keep my mum sweet.

  8. What you re telling is true but I am personally unhappy at work because I am bored which is the opposite of the chapter about overwork and stress (which would be uncool as well). I do not feel busy enough and sincerely SUFFERING about it.


  9. Tune in to my radio show ‘day jobs’ for our important upcoming guest on bullying in the workplace. Bullying is NOT uncommon at all in the workplace! On the contrary! We could not function in such environments and had to start our own company

  10. THANK YOU for writing this post. Personally I think we invest way too much time working – especially as it’s become “normal” to work over a third of our day – to take this kind of crap. it’s been so rife that I haven’t stayed in a job longer than a year.

  11. I am at Gamestation which apparently is in the entertainment sector of retail. Myself and other colleagues are so unhappy at how the company seems to disregard our rights to go home at a reasonable time which to me is around 15 to 30 minutes AFTER the offical paid part of the contract hours stops. This is not the case and the long hours culture has encroached so deeply into our personal time that staff are just desiring to leave rather than progess with the company.

    It could be because high street retail is feeling the squeeze in the dire state of our economy and are trying to survive by working harder and longer for less money and less rest. I have resorted to asking for hours cut which will automatically mean less pay, however the company seems to have a real problem letting me do that even though they want to cut staffing in some stores.

    It seems these days retail cannot get enough of the “voluntary” hours from its staff and just start finding more and more things that need to be done near the time when they should be letting the staff go home.

    I’m not just talking about 15 minutes here and there, I mean between 5 to 20 hours extra unpaid EVERY week. This is in an industry that will not pay bonuses, pay rises or sick pay. How can anyone feel happy when their purses, family time and recovery time are seriously short changed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.