"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Do You Feel Engaged In Your Job?

According to a recent Gallup Poll, seventy percent of us are not.  As Annette Fondas reports in the Atlantic (6.26.13:

Most workers hate their jobs or have "checked out," headlined the Los Angeles Times last week about a new Gallup poll, "2013 State of the American Workforce." A jaw-dropping 700 million people--about 70 percent of full-time workers--are emotionally disconnected at work, meaning they only "go through the motions" to perform their jobs or worse: they do things to weaken or sabotage the organization and its mission.

I have always known that working in an office is a dispiriting, airless existence.  Unless one is in management and well-rewarded for organization, discipline, human relations, financial control, and risk management (few of us), clocking in at work every morning is the first rote action of a tedious, life-sucking, repetitive, and crushingly boring day.

This is not to say that office minions don’t draw some measure of satisfaction from camaraderie of the workplace.  Even in jobs where every keystroke is recorded and every last ounce of productivity is vacuumed out, there is always a few minutes for gossip.  The fact that chatter is usually about the boring, exploitive job; or bad bosses, and the slave-driver mentality of management, at some level there is social bonding.

Jobs – good or bad – pay the rent and give you something to do all day long.  As much as we may complain about the incarceration of work, most people feel like they are drifting on a balsa raft on uncharted seas if they are unemployed.

All the same 70 percent is a very big number of grumbling, dissatisfied, disengaged workers.  It gets worse. Not only do disaffected workers sleepwalk through their jobs, devoid of any energy let alone passion, there are many who want to bring the whole place down.  If they can’t be happy, then no one else should be:

Another 18 percent are "actively disengaged" from their jobs, hampering productivity--not to mention killing the organization's culture. These people "aren't just unhappy at work; they're busy acting out their unhappiness. Every day, these workers undermine what their engaged workers accomplish."

I have always put this down to good, wholesome competitiveness.  Most offices run a zero-sum game – i.e. your loss is my gain – and everyone is out both to further their own interests and to deny, diminish, or destroy the accomplishment of others. Joseph Heller captures the ennui and frightening office experience in Something Happened:

We wise grown ups here at the company go gliding in and out all day long, scaring each other at our desks and cubicles and water coolers and trying to evade the people who frighten us. We come to work, have lunch, and go home. We goose-step in and goose-step out, change our partners and wander all about, sashay around for a pat on the head, and promenade home till we all drop dead.

I get the willies when I see closed doors. Even at work, where I am doing so well now, the sight of a closed door is sometimes enough to make me dread that something horrible is happening behind it, something that is going to affect me adversely; if I am tired and dejected from a night of lies or booze or sex or just nerves and insomnia, I can almost smell the disaster mounting invisibly and flooding out toward me through the frosted glass panes. My hands may perspire, and my voice may come out strange. I wonder why. Something must have happened to me sometime.”

The Atlantic article focuses on the gender differences concerning office engagement – women are far happier in their jobs than men, and this may have something to do with flex-time.  More women than men take advantage of this benefit to take care of young children, and working at home diminishes stress, is a break in the routine, and restores an all-important work-life balance.

The conclusion, then, is that if more companies adopted employee-friendly practices, workers would be happier, more productive, and more compliant.  This of course is just whistlin’ Dixie.  I worked for a company that preached engagement, work-life balance, positive rewards, and participatory decision-making; but in reality had no intention of doing anything about it.  Because the supply of bright young things willing and able to do office scutwork far exceeded the demand, management could run the company like a Roman galley.  It was management on deck, support staff below pulling away at the oars and lashed by overseers.  If an ‘Administrative Assistant’ finally had her fill, there were many more eager, enthusiastic, and idealistic candidates waiting to go below decks. 

As much as the company convened focus groups, seminars, and workshops about work-life balance, nothing ever changed.  There was no way a supervisor could waste time mentoring an inefficient employee when the bottom-line figures were bad or when contracts were lost.

Flextime and ‘working-at-home’ was tried for a time.  Employees could work at home only if they were working on a specific project, like a proposal, which required independence, quiet, and isolation from the distractions of the workplace.  Of course ‘working-at-home’ became a convenient excuse for sleeping late, having an early glass of wine, and walking the dog.  There was no difference in production or performance. Bad, undisciplined proposal writers turned out the same prolix, rambling, senseless prose that they did while chained to a desk; and the policy was rescinded.

At the same time, who ever said that work was supposed to be fun? This is a concoction of the narcissist generation X – pampered children of Baby Boomers who told them all along that life would be a great ride, that they were special, perfect, and desirable. Work would be fun.

Most generations before them took work as a necessity, maybe even a religious obligation.  In Hindu philosophy life is comprised of many phases, one of which is that of The Householder.  If you are a Householder you marry, work, have children, work some more, and if you are lucky you may pass on to the next level on the Path to Enlightenment.  No one is supposed to be happy in the Householder phase. It wasn’t designed that way.

So kvetching, whinging, griping, whining, and complaining are part of the deal.  You aren’t supposed to like work. It is part of the penance of The Fall.  Get over it.

Still, should we sit back, let capitalism do its thing, sucking the life out of labor and enforcing class distinction, and profit from low-cost do-dads? Yes, because we are all in this together.  We all have put in our time on the treadmill, watched the clock, checked for the ominous shadow of the supervisor, and burst out into the sunlight at 5 o’clock with relief and joy.  Deep down we know that we as consumers benefit from the Roman galley approach to business enterprise.

We may be a long way from Ebenezer Scrooge, but know that a sensitive, New Age, touchy-feely manager is an oxymoron.  There ain’t no such thing.  Most of us would like to think so and are always on the lookout for jobs that promise a congenial, participatory work environment; and reams of material have been produced by consultants who search for the Holy Grail of management – that perfect balance between a happy, content, and satisfied workforce and high corporate productivity. Like the Holy Grail, that ideal model might be out there but mighty hard to find.


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