Annual surveys of workers tell us that job satisfaction has been on a continual and gradual decline since the 1980s (bottoming out in 2010 after the recession). Less than half of U.S. workers say they are satisfied with their jobs. What are the top reasons for unhappiness at work?

Pay. Historically, low pay (or perceived low pay) is the top reason that workers voice dissatisfaction. But it is the perception of the pay, not the actual amount, that is the problem. A lot of this is due to feelings of inequity – many workers are unhappy because they believe that their pay is not fair compensation for their skills, effort, and dedication to the job. It is interesting to note that while U.S. worker productivity continually increases, wages (in constant dollars) have stayed level. So, there may be some basis for feelings of inequity.

Job Security. Coming out of a recession with high unemployment rates, combined with dwindling pensions/retirement funding, it’s easy to see why a lack of job security is a major driver of employee dissatisfaction. A generation ago, workers could expect some level of security, and 25, 30, and even 40 years with the same employer was common. Today, workers feel little security that they will be with their employee next month, let alone next year.

Lack of Social Connections. With rapid turnover, many workers do not stay with a company long enough to make strong social connections. This leads to weak organizational cultures, where people feel isolated and disconnected, and this fuels unhappiness.

The Work Itself. Many workers are unhappy with the type of work that they do. Younger workers feel underutilized – that the low-level of work they do doesn’t adequately engage them, or fully utilize their skills. Older workers may become dissatisfied with the routine, or the lack of meaning. Oftentimes, dissatisfaction with the job is either because managers aren’t doing a good job of challenging workers, or workers settling for security over challenge.

Bullying and Misbehavior in the Workplace. With an ever-changing cast of workers, a lack of social connections, and poor leadership, the incidence of bad employee behavior increases. Rather than working as a team, some people see the workplace as a competitive environment, with other employees as the competition for scarce jobs and resources. Coupled with apathy from other employees and management, bullies and others are able to get away (and get ahead) with their bad behavior.

What is the solution to unhappiness at work? Unfortunately, it’s complex. On the employers’ side, management needs to do a better job of selecting and placing workers in jobs that are a good fit. Good leadership involves challenging workers and recognizing employees for the good work they do. Building a workplace culture that is positive and engages employees is important.

From the workers’ side, not settling for a dead-end job, and trying to find the value in the work you do, are important. Realize that ultimately satisfaction or dissatisfaction at work is related to how you approach your job. Try to find meaning in your work, or work that is meaningful to you.

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