Unhappiness at work: it is everywhere

I often find it useful to remind people who aren’t so sure that happiness at work is a matter worth much thought, that nobody goes to work to be unhappy. At least, nobody has that intention. But the newest data released from Gallup’s World Poll shows that the gap between what we want from work, and what our actual experience of work is like is huge, with 24% of the global workforce actively disengaged. This translates into 720 million individuals who are going into work every single day and being – to quote Gallup – “not just unhappy at work but busy acting out their unhappiness”.

But it’s not only the bottom 24% to be concerned about. The rest of the workforce aren’t exactly fizzing with happiness either. In fact 63% of the global workforce are “checked out, sleepwalking through their workday, putting time but not energy or passion into their work”. That’s more people than make up the entire workforces of India and China put together who do not feel engaged by their work.

Those who are happy at work – the 13% of the global workforce who are “working with passion, driving innovation and moving their organization forward” - are effectively carrying the rest. That’s only one in eight of the world’s employees! These are startling numbers. The global unhappiness at work revealed by the world poll data undoubtedly costs companies, and therefore nations, a great deal.

In their report “State of the Global Workforce” Gallup researchers also draw on their extensive work with clients. There is huge statistical power in their data as it was collected from 1.4 million people spread across nearly 50,000 teams. The revelations are really worth taking notice of. With this data they explored the difference in performance between the most engaged teams (defined as the top 25%) and the least engaged ones (the bottom 25%). The differences are stark. In engaged teams absenteeism, accidents, thefts and staff turnover are lower. The quality of products, customer satisfaction, productivity and profits are higher – more than 20% higher, in fact. It’s worth bearing in mind that these estimates are probably conservative. Gallup’s data comes only from their own clients, atypical organizations that are clearly willing to think about and invest in the idea of how engaged their employees are.1

Engagement’s effect on Key Performance Indicators

Comparison of most engaged teams (top 25%) to the least (bottom 25%)
Source: State of the Global Workforce 2013 - Gallup - 49,928 teams - 1.4 million team members


Gallup’s data shows clearly two very important facts.

  • Engagement is good – companies with high levels of engagement way outperform those with low engagement
  • Far too few people are actively engaged at work.

In the light of these facts, what is it we’re suggesting an organisation can do? Should they start pouring energy into garnering engagement from their employees? I think not. It is here, I think – and I have written about elsewhere – that a focus on happiness can really help. Engagement is the organizational issue and is highly related to performance. But engagement is not really the employee’s issue. Employees – and remember, that is most of us - don’t go around thinking about our engagement at work. We think about whether we enjoy our work, whether we like our environment and our colleagues, what our daily experience of work is like, and whether we feel we have a positive social impact. We don’t wonder ‘am I engaged?’ We think about our happiness.

The smart move for an organisation looking to improve employee engagement then would be to think first about employee happiness. A genuine conversation about happiness at work, which actively involves employees in co-creating new ways of working is probably one of the most engaging things that an employee can be offered. Higher engagement brings all of the benefits to performance and profit detailed above, but what’s more, by engaging in happiness, you’ll be part of a movement working to make the world of workers a whole lot less miserable, a whole lot more energetic, and a good deal more passionate and awake.

  1. This type of data skewing is common in the creation of so-called industry benchmarks by many survey companies. However the “benchmark” is made up exclusively of their own clients and they are very unlikely to be statistically representative of the entire industry. At Happiness Works we avoid this bias by only using nationally representative samples of the whole workforce to create our benchmarks. We do not offer industry specific benchmarks, as we know we do not have the statistical power to be representative. We are also very confident that the difference between industries and sectors is much smaller than any bias introduced by using non-representative samples.

Nic MarksNic Marks is the CEO and founder of Happiness Works. Nic’s work in happiness and wellbeing research methodology is world-renowned. His love of using applied statistics to ground wellbeing and happiness in hard evidence has led to worldwide acclaim and the realization that happiness is a serious business.

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