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

“OK, fine,” you say, “they’re all miserable then. So, what do I do about it and why do I really care?” The downside of having miserable employees manifests itself in a few different ways. Turnover is certainly one. Productivity is another. Have I got your attention now?

Employee retention and productivity are the heartbeat of a company and lead directly to the success or failure of a business. Certainly you can always hire another admin, programmer or VP of Marketing, but the cost of training and loss of productivity are enormous and definitely have an impact on your business, so why not affect both retention and productivity at the same time?

Employees who have a real interest in their job and the company are always better to have around than the alternative. Many times an organization won’t realize they have a ‘misery’ issue until it’s too late.

3 Ways to Show You Care About Your Employees

Let’s take the issues one at a time.

1. Caring about your employees.

Sure, you care already. Right? Well, how much do you really know about your employees or direct reports? You know that they do their jobs, you know when they don’t do their jobs and you give them a performance review on occasion. But how much do you really know? How many kids does your VP of Marketing have? Does your admin have outside hobbies? Where did your star programmer grow up and how many brothers and sisters do they have? Why on earth would any of this be important anyways?

In a previous article, I wrote about team dysfunctions, the first level of team dynamics being trust. And trust, as I defined it, was based on personal vulnerability within the team, and this was based on knowing people on a bit more personal level than just the job. People who know something about each other will be far more content in what they are doing, because they won’t feel like an anonymous cog in a wheel, more a part of a team.

Your interest in your employees beyond just their job has a huge impact on their view of their job, because they feel that someone really cares that they are there. It’s weird how humans seem to require some social interaction. To work, your interest must be genuine and certainly not too personal. Don’t be creepy.

You should make it a personal goal to know, as a start, three things about each of your employees or direct reports. Hobbies, kids and outside interests are great examples. Just the process of engaging an employee in this more casual level of conversation sends a strong signal to them that they aren’t just anonymous. Be genuine, don’t be creepy.

2. Help your employees understand who is impacted by their work.

Humans want to know that what they do all day somehow impacts others. Every job helps someone or some group, otherwise it wouldn’t be needed.

Your VP of Marketing needs to understand how their job affects customers directly and helps influence their decision process. Your admin needs to know how much their work impacts your ability to do your job. The waitress needs to know that their work directly affects the customer experience, and the janitorial staff needs to understand that a clear workplace affects the mood of everyone in the company.

It’s amazing how much a smile affects a customer. It’s your job as a manager to help each of your employees or direct reports understand who their job directly impacts. It doesn’t have to be a customer, it can be other parts of an organization.

3. Help your employees develop a way to personally measure their direct impact on customers or other employees or groups within the company.

This needs to be a clear and objective measurement to assess progress or success in a position.

A dishwasher might measure themselves in the number of dishes returned by the cook as not clean, a lower number being better. A cook might measure themselves in the number of dishes returned to the kitchen by customers with 0 being the goal. A programmer might measure themselves in the number of bugs they find in their own code, a customer support person might measure how many times they can get the customer to laugh.

The goals need to be personal, measurable and something that indicates that a great job is being done. The measurable goal has to be something the employee has a direct impact on. In the service industry these measurables can be customer smiles, lack of complaints, shorter lines, etc.

Imagine a sporting event without scores. It wouldn’t really be interesting and you probably would lose interest very quickly. It’s the same with any job. A VP level executive is presumed by the CEO as needing little or no support. They are, after all, seasoned professionals. Without paying attention to these three issues, even the VP level executive can lose any sense of meaning to the job if they feel isolated or ignored on a personal level.

What to Do About Miserable Employees

So, what can you do? If you are the manager of people, ask yourself three questions.

  1. “Do I know these people that work for me?”
  2. “Do they know how their specific work impacts other people, customers and/or the company?”
  3. “Do they each have ways to measure their individual progress or success?”

What to Do If You’re an Employee Unhappy at Work

What to do if you are unhappy at work

If you are the miserable employee, what can you do?

Start by talking to your manager about this. Show them this article. You can’t be afraid to have this conversation. If you get a negative response, at least you know that the situation isn’t going to get better and you can adjust your future accordingly. Go find another job.

In the interview, ask the company how they address these issues. Ask your manager for suggestions on measurables for your specific position. Also ask their opinion on who is directly impacted by your job, good or bad. The more you know about your personal customer, the more satisfaction you will be getting from your job.

Stop being miserable.

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