Is happiness at work a realistic expectation?

Woman on laptop talking to man in office. | Newsreel
Can we be happy at work? | Stock image

By Shane Rodgers

Most of our pop culture depictions of work portray it as a grind that must be endured until the final whistle, when you bolt out the door like a drowning person desperate for oxygen.

We say “thank God it’s Friday” because work is finally over, we use cupcakes to get through “hump day” Wednesday and Mondayitis is a kind of collective morbidity that strikes when the inevitability of the start of the working week becomes inescapable.

The idea of work being an affliction required to avoid starvation and bankruptcy seems deeply rooted from eras where working meant long hours, and often repetitive tedium.

In a world powered by technology and “knowledge” tasks the tedium aspects have been progressively taken over by computers, digital efficiency and automation and, increasingly, artificial intelligence.

Despite this, the figures on work enjoyment remain moribund. The 2023 Gallup State of the Global Workforce report found nearly 60% of workers globally were psychologically disengaged from their work – the so-called quiet quitters.

A staggering 51% said they were in the market for a new job. The same survey the year before found 20% of workers were “miserable”.

There is something wrong with this picture. We live in an era where humans should be doing the interesting stuff (that machines cannot do) and time is so precious that rewarding and satisfying jobs should be a reasonable and achievable aspiration for most.

When I was researching the Worknado book over the past few years, I was struck by all of the messages I received from people who felt trapped and desperately unhappy in their work.

The brief moment when history opened the door for different ways of working off the back of COVID-19 revealed the pent-up demand for different ways of work that are better integrated with broader lifestyle.

This happened so quickly that we did not really get time to explore the forces driving this.
What we do know is that humans are rapidly changing their attitudes to work and employers will not be able to ignore this.

A few studies of Generation Z show a majority of this group never want to work for a company or a boss in the traditional sense. A study in the US showed nearly half of young people had some sort of “side hustle”, presumably with a view to creating an empire, or at least a living, from it if it finds an audience.

The university system is starting to fray at the edges as more young people question whether the traditional degree system makes sense for them any more. Social media is awash with young people boasting that they are making huge dollars doing simple online business plays or building audiences as influencers and selling that influence.

I suspect we spend too much time trying to keep employees happy with events and perks. The evidence suggests that the nature of work itself is in the mix and the future workforce will have very different needs and aspirations.

Shane Rodgers is the author of Worknado – Reimagining the way we work to live.