Unhappy at work? You’re not alone.

Sadly, more than 50% of us are unhappy. That’s true regardless of age or income. In fact, job satisfaction is the lowest it’s been in two decades — even in this economy (according to a recent Conference Board study).

Another survey confirms this: CareerBuilder.com says 40% of workers have difficulty staying motivated.

That’s a lot of unhappy people.

Digging into the list of what causes unhappiness at work is extensive.  Yet common problems are easy to identify: heavy workloads, long hours, and strained resources — combined with expectations of high performance. The result: high stress with no end in sight. This confirms what a lot of us already know. After all, we spend more hours working than anything else.

What if work were more meaningful?  Would that make a difference? Yes, if you believe author Malcom Gladwell.  In his book Outliers, Gladwell defines meaningful work as the connection to effort and reward — along with autonomy and, what may seem surprising, complexity.

When we value our work, job satisfaction goes up and stress levels go down because we believe all the effort is worth it.

What is meaningful work? Now there’s a challenge. Years ago, I heard a speech by Larry Wilson, founder of Wilson Learning talk about meaning.  He described a woman who worked in a factory making plastic tubes. How could that be meaningful? It had meaning for her because she knew that the plastic tubes were used in childrens hospitals for newborn babies. For some immigrants, it’s meaningful enough just to have a job so they can send money home to Somalia, Mexico, or China,

Source of Light, painting by John Schuerman

But many of us want a whole lot more. I know I do.  Work demands so much from us that it’s not worth it to settle for anything less.  Yes, I’m fortunate enough to have options.  Most of us do, but we often don’t look for them.  Early in my career I was naive — thrilled to be in a challenging job and fortunate enough to keep getting promoted. Looking back I wonder how I ever survived in the rigid environment, however much I was learning or earning. I settled for a job that provided opportunities, which was important too.

But what if I had stumbled upon a career I really cared about? Better yet, what if I had thought about finding a job that had meaning beyond the basics of a good salary, benefits, and career potential?

Work consumes most of our waking hours.  Don’t we owe it to ourselves to find a job that appeals to us? Fortunately more people have raised the bar, they expect more meaning and are more likely to be happier at work.

Millennials expect to “make an immediate impact by doing meaningful work. They will work long and hard provided they care,” state Harvard Business Week authors Carolyn Martin and Bruce Tulgan. Boomers want meaning too, with encore careers.  Even boomers forced to postpone retirement are choosing carefully. To support these boomers, Encore.org was launched by Civic Ventures, a nonprofit think tank that wants “to engage millions of experienced individuals” to become a force for social change.

The tricky part is finding work that is meaningful to you.

Perhaps a mentor could help you think through your interests or explore options you might not otherwise consider. Finding out more about yourself, what truly matters, is much more difficult than some people might think. Some people take a big leap, and jump right into their new life.  But that doesn’t work for many of us.  We have so many obligations or routines that are hard to break — or simply don’t know what we want. (Though we often know what we don’t want!)

What ways have you used to take a leap or explore your options to find more meaningful work?


3 Responses

  1. Its tough at work, around the globe. More news about how people are unhappy at work…

    According to the 2010 Towers Watson Global Workforce Study of over 20,000 full-time employees in 22 global markets, they are afraid, insecure, and distrustful.


  2. […] You’d think more of us would choose something we truly cared about.  If so many of us are unhappy at work, why not do something we love? There are many reasons, even seemingly good reasons. We settle in, […]

  3. […] want to achieve? Do you dare to radically raise the bar? What would you like to change or improve? Are you unhappy at work? Career passion shouldn’t be an oxymoron. If you’re not sure what you want, a mentor can help […]

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