Are our expectations of work making us miserable?

Earlier this year I talked to two separate people within a week who were working at amazing companies (based on the ‘best companies to work for’ lists) that had attended internal trainings for junior employees. These companies had revamped their training in the past few year to focus more on employee well-being, work-life balance and embracing things like yoga and mindfulness as tools for being more engaged at work.

In these trainings, people do exercises that in the past might have been more typical of retreats that operated on the fringes or completely outside of corporate culture. The type of exercises that push people to be vulnerable, ask tough questions and look at their lives in a holistic way.

When you push people to ponder questions like “what is most important to you?” many wind up not putting their current job at the top of their list. One person reflected to me that a retreat exercise made them painfully aware of how 80-hour workweeks and non-stop travel made their ranking of family as the most important thing to them look quite hypocritical.

Being Fulfilled At Work Is Still A New Idea

Twelve years ago when I entered the working world, there wasn’t a collective sense that work should be a place to find meaning or passion. Work-life balance was the game and meaning was something to be found once you found that elusive balance. In 2007, google first landed in the best places to work ranking for the first time and in 2009, the Netflix Culture went viral. Company culture was the new hot topic of business culture.

This was amplified by the embrace of social media and for the first time, social media allowed us to “see” inside of companies both literally and figuratively.

What did offices look like? What were the ratings on Glassdoor? What did employees of X company go on to achieve on LinkedIn? How do companies share their story?

Google is perhaps the most obvious example of a company that embraced culture as a core competitive advantage and made it central to its story of success. It told its story through books like How Google Works and Work Rules!. Everyone wanted to work at a company like google.

However, most companies were not google and instead people found themselves questioning why their managers didn’t trust them with 20% time, let alone offering them free lunch and ping pong tables. Work was no longer a place to earn a living. It was a become a place for total and complete fulfillment. A recent survey found that 78% of workers now believe that “employers have a responsibility to keep employees mentally and physically well.” Think about that for a second. Placing responsibility for our mental and physical wellness on organizations that rarely are able to hire managers with the right skills.

Awkward Implementation Of Meaningful Work

Employers have taken responsibility for employee well-being, but early attempts have been based on the same stale approaches of the past. Business leaders have spent more time creating surveys to ask employees about their experience and translating human emotions into coded scoring rubrics than having actual conversations with them. HR leaders are more focused on making people feel good and fitting in with their HR peers by embracing the latest hot topic than realizing that meaning at work is “associated with mixed, uncomfortable, or even painful thoughts and feelings, not just a sense of unalloyed joy and happiness.”

From an average employee perspective, it looks like your company is giving a shit about you while at the same time, you actually feel more stressed, anxious and confused than ever. There are more more activities and initiatives you need to participate in that seem good on the surface, but don’t really solve any problems for you in terms of motivation, satisfaction or meaning.

I recently shared the above image showing the percent of employees being treated rudely by colleagues from a McKinsey study. A few years ago, I saw this and took it at face value: work is getting worse.

However, as former McKinsey and current freelance consultant Will Bachman commented, “could it be a measurement issue? Perhaps we are getting more sensitive to behavior that would previously be considered acceptable but is now considered insulting or rude? I’m not convinced this is the reason, but it is a hypothesis that should be considered.”

I think Bachman is spot on that we cannot rule out that hypotheses.

I also think Bachman is right. I think the increased attention to culture, engagement, satisfaction has undermined itself. I think many organizations would be better suited at being brutally honest to their people about their true goals or at least be more honest about knowing what it’s doing.

I’ve always respected the finance industry for its brazen ignorance of any new culture fad. There is never any illusion when you join an investment bank that you will be treated well. At least people know what they are getting into.

Yet I remain optimistic.

Is the disconnect between these expectations and reality making people miserable at work right now?


But I’m also seeing the edges of a new conversation emerging. It’s not the surface level table-stakes conversation that many companies engage in now but a different conversation that has simmered below the surface for years. Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organizations was perhaps the first semi-radical treatise on work that caught some mainstream attention.

Perhaps inspired by these books and/or seeing others reinventing the organizations and work in fundamental ways, there have been many new people in the last few years that are questioning our current culture and assumptions surrounding work.

Many of the conversations I’ve had with people over the last couple of years also reveal that people are waking up. They are realizing that its quite insane to place responsibility for their happiness or well-being in the hands of an organization.

I’m optimistic and hopeful that many of these same people take ownership for their unhappiness and help to create a better future.

About Paul Millerd

Paul is a writer, creator, and curious human that is passionate about how people can reimagine their relationship with work to do things that matter. He published The Pathless Path in 2022.

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