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3 Causes of a Miserable Job (and What to Do About Miserable Employees)

What causes miserable employees

Your employees are miserable. There, I said it. And I said it without knowing anything about your company, your role or your experience.

OK, there are no absolutes. It’s possible that your employees aren’t actually miserable, but odds are very good that they are, because we tend to focus on the wrong things where our employee’s well-being is concerned. So first, let’s define what I mean by “miserable.”

Have you ever had a job where you dreaded going in to work each day? One where you can’t wait for the day to end? One where the clock seems to move more slowly as the day progresses? Have you ever had a cynical view of a job you held? If so — and we have all had a job or jobs like this — then you are, or were, a miserable employee. Note that none of these questions have anything to do with the actual job or job performance, just your feelings about the job.

There are miserable jobs out there, make no mistake. Some jobs, no matter how good you feel, just suck. Mike Rowe’s television series Dirty Jobs did a great job in showing us what a real miserable job looks like. Those jobs are not what this article is about.

What is a Miserable Job?

A miserable job, as I define it, can be any job. Janitor, waiter, programmer, VP of Marketing, rock star, professional athlete; these positions can all be filled by people who are actually miserable, because the measurements I am going to use can apply to anyone.

How can a professional athlete making millions of dollars and playing in front of huge adoring crowds be miserable? After all, they have everything one could want in life, right? Well, as it turns out, not necessarily. Anyone can be miserable at work, however “work” is defined. Having a miserable job can cause stress, tension and sometimes depression. A person who is miserable at work can have health issues, both physical and emotional, as a result.

Let’s face it: being unhappy at work is, well, miserable.

On the flip side, anyone can be happy and content at work — again, no matter what the job. Ever see a really happy waitress? I have, and they are a delight to run into. Ever seen a janitor whistling while they work with a nice smile on their face? How can they be happy doing janitorial work? Certainly, you have seen both happy and miserable flight attendants, and you have experienced the difference. It’s not the job making them happy and content, it has to be something else. No job is perfect, but a happy, content employee can have a huge effect on your company — just as a miserable employee can have a huge negative effect.

The Miserable Employee

Let’s first take the perspective of the miserable employee, since we have all been there. What makes you miserable and what can we change to adjust your outlook on your job? There are three things that can cause your misery.

1. Nobody knows who you are, and nobody seems to really care.

This is easy to see in some positions such as a packer in an Amazon warehouse or a dishwasher in a greasy restaurant, but it happens at all levels. You can be a VP of Marketing and be miserable because you feel anonymous. Certainly, the CEO pays attention to your spending and may care about your current ad campaign, but do they have any idea who you are and why you might be grumpy on some days? Probably not, and the feeling that nobody cares can affect your overall feeling about your job and make you miserable.

2. You don’t have any idea that your job matters to anyone.

The anonymous Amazon warehouse worker, the cleaning staff on an airline, the dishwasher all do their jobs. But if there is no feeling like any of it matters to anyone, if you can’t connect your job to the satisfaction of another person or group, you are not going to be a happy employee.

3. You don’t have any personal way to measure your progress and level of contribution to the company you work for.

You do your job, you pack the box, you clear the tables, you write the code and you go home at the end of the day tired and dissatisfied. While most executive-level jobs have tons of measurables based on company success, many times there aren’t any measurements in place for your personal impact. Not having any way to access your personal performance and impact on whoever your ‘customer’ is can and will make you miserable.

The Employer’s Perspective

Now let’s take it from the perspective of the employer. The very real issue here is that you may not have any idea your employees are miserable, because you are looking at it the wrong way. Let’s take a look at the same three issues, but as viewed by the employer.

1. You don’t really know much about your employees and don’t spend the time to find out, because it isn’t really relevant to your company or group success.

Some positions you might view as field replaceable units, meaning if they quit one day you can just get another. Your VP of Marketing is a grown adult; they can take care of themselves. Your admin just needs to suck it up, we all have problems. But wouldn’t it be better if they didn’t quit, sulk or complain in the lunchroom? If you feel this way or you see yourself in this dialog, you probably have miserable employees.

2. You don’t take the time to help your employees understand the impact of their work on the overall health and success of the company.

This is a big one. We tend to take employees for granted and assume they know that what they do is important. But they probably don’t know, or at least have any idea, who cares. What difference does it make if a box isn’t packed right? Who cares if my the company’s software is released this week or next, or is buggy or not? If your employees can’t connect their work to someone’s satisfaction or figure out why it might matter to someone, you probably have miserable employees.

3. You don’t really offer any way for an employee to measure their level of contribution or measure their success at what they do.

It isn’t enough to give an opinion about their performance (“You’re doing a fine job Mike”), as subjective opinions don’t really satisfy the human need to be measured. If you haven’t had the conversation with employees about how they might measure their individual contributions to the company, you probably have miserable employees.

Why You Should Care About Miserable Employees

Why you should care about miserable employees