Future Work

Why Americans Hate Their Jobs

Why do Americans hate their jobs? Relentless grind, toxic management, distrustful bosses, low pay, or poor work-life balance?
Last updated on
July 4, 2024 5:00 PM
3
min read
why-americans-hate-their-jobs
Daan van Rossum
Daan van Rossum
Founder & CEO, FlexOS
I founded FlexOS because I believe in a happier future of work. I write and host "Future Work," I'm a 2024 LinkedIn Top Voice, and was featured in the NYT, HBR, Economist, CNBC, Insider, and FastCo.

Massive supermarkets with giant cereal isles, customary tipping, and single portion sizes fit for a family. There were plenty of things I needed to get used to when I moved to the US over ten years ago, but none as jarring as the workplace culture. 

I had been working for the Amsterdam office of the advertising agency Ogilvy, and although I interacted with American colleagues, nothing could have prepared me for my first months there.

While generally friendly and cheerful, you could immediately sense that the Americans were playing the work game on a different level. Longer hours, the apparent need to ‘score points’ in every meeting, and an unspoken expectation to always be "on" permeated the office atmosphere. 

What struck me most was the intense competitive spirit that drove many of my coworkers. It wasn't just about doing a good job; it seemed to be as much about outperforming others. And I happily played along, as I had spent too many years back in the slow lane and was excited about this new pace.

But I also saw the other side of being always on, and I couldn't help but wonder about the toll it was taking on people's personal lives and overall happiness. 

Today, 15 years later, having just moved back to Europe, a Business Insider article caught my eye: “Why so many Americans hate their jobs.” (Fittingly, in the week when many of my US-based friends and ex-colleagues are taking time off to celebrate the 4th of July.)

The article cites Gallup data on low employee engagement—the lowest levels in 11 years, to be precise. 

So why do Americans hate their jobs?

Why Americans Hate Their Jobs

Since you likely are, employ, or otherwise interact with Americans, this question deserves an answer. 

Well, the data is clear: Employees are not getting what they would want out of a potentially mutually beneficial relationship, including:

Lack of Purpose

The Business Insider article’s author, fellow European Molly Lipson, says it's mainly about purpose. She quotes a  YouGov study highlighting that only 50% of Americans said their job makes a meaningful contribution to the world. 

Future Work FlexOS Newsletter YouGov Data

As always, not everyone answered this question equally. The younger, the less likely people are to find their jobs meaningful. Differences exist between industries, too: 73% of healthcare workers say they do meaningful work versus only 35% in restaurants and hotels.

Poor management and work environment

Ineffective leadership, lack of support, and limited opportunities for participation and idea contribution significantly impact employees' views of their work. 

Our research on hybrid work showed that most employees only rate their manager a 7/10 and that communication and task planning are the areas managers need to improve most.

As Annie Dean, Atlassian’s VP of Team Anywhere, told me earlier this week, one of the biggest challenges people face at work is a lack of clarity. And leaders need to provide this:
“As a leader you have to be willing to place your bets and say: I have a good planning process, I'm looking at the right information, and I'm good at making a call on what matters to my business unit.” – Annie Dean, VP, Team Anywhere, Atlassian.

Mistrust

You just have to browse the Antiwork subreddit for a few minutes to conclude what we all know: there’s massive mistrust between employers and employees. 

Potentially a very symbiotic relationship, employees feel ‘top management’ doesn’t trust them, resulting in them not trusting the top. 

This has clearly worsened since the post-COVID remote work boom and results in cases like Wells Fargo firing people for using “mouse jigglers.”

It’s nuts.

As organizational consultant Amy Leschke-Kahle told me, it’s time to treat employees like the grown-ups they are:

“You need to treat your employees like responsible, super-smart grown-ups, which almost all of them are. Create that partnership with them and say, how can we help your work be better, to give you space to do some of those things that you wish you could do?” – Amy Leschke-Kahle

Insufficient pay and growth options

According to 2023 Pew research, how much people get paid is at the bottom of people's feelings about their work, only followed by the even-worse number of opportunities to get ahead.

Future Work FlexOS Newsletter Pew Data

According to the same data, people who get paid less are also much less likely to like other aspects of their jobs. 

Age matters a lot here, too: as discussed before, Gen Z and Millennials are stressed to death, in part because their salaries are not keeping up with the rising costs of living. 

Work-life balance issues

In that same article, we also saw how many people suffer from a lack of work-life balance due to work being ‘always on.’

The return-to-office mandates companies like Nike, Zoom, and Apple have been embarking on are not helping either. This is even though Atlassian data confirms that those RTO mandates drove ‘no significant improvement’ in productivity.

Supposedly for ‘connection and community,’ academic research shows that most mandates are simply senior leaders not trusting employees, creating more distrust, as mentioned before. 

We Need to Do Better

I could go on about reasons why people hate their jobs, but let’s ask whether there is an opportunity for happiness at work.

As HR Tech guru Josh Bersin told me in the first Future Work episode of this season, nothing is worse than someone hating their job: 

“It's very hard for me to talk to somebody who hates their job, boss, and company. My wish for the future is that that we can all move into the right position, or that the company will help us fulfill our desires so that work can be ultimately fulfilling.” – HR Tech Guru Josh Bersin.

I obviously agree; since we spend most of our lives working, we better make that time work for us. 

Recent IKEA news provides a great case study of how it can be done.

Plagued by costly turnover, “IKEA’s boss solved the Swedish retailer’s global ‘unhappy worker’ crisis by raising salaries, introducing flexible working and subsidizing childcare,” as Bloomberg’s Matt Boyle reports

Future Work FlexOS Newsletter Bloomberg report IKEA

The results spoke volumes: Voluntary turnover decreased to around 25% of US employees by the end of 2023 from 33% a year earlier. Globally, employees quit at a rate of 17.5% in April from 22.4% in August 2022. 

Shockingly, good things happen when people feel treated fairly.

So whether you’re in the US or outside of it: 

  • Bosses, give your employees the trust and flexibility to work how (hint: AI), where, and where is best for them. 
  • Workers: it’s simple: don’t settle. 

We all deserve better.

Until next week,

Daan

PS: If you have made it this far, reply with the worst thing about your job or the job you left. I love reading your stories. 

Massive supermarkets with giant cereal isles, customary tipping, and single portion sizes fit for a family. There were plenty of things I needed to get used to when I moved to the US over ten years ago, but none as jarring as the workplace culture. 

I had been working for the Amsterdam office of the advertising agency Ogilvy, and although I interacted with American colleagues, nothing could have prepared me for my first months there.

While generally friendly and cheerful, you could immediately sense that the Americans were playing the work game on a different level. Longer hours, the apparent need to ‘score points’ in every meeting, and an unspoken expectation to always be "on" permeated the office atmosphere. 

What struck me most was the intense competitive spirit that drove many of my coworkers. It wasn't just about doing a good job; it seemed to be as much about outperforming others. And I happily played along, as I had spent too many years back in the slow lane and was excited about this new pace.

But I also saw the other side of being always on, and I couldn't help but wonder about the toll it was taking on people's personal lives and overall happiness. 

Today, 15 years later, having just moved back to Europe, a Business Insider article caught my eye: “Why so many Americans hate their jobs.” (Fittingly, in the week when many of my US-based friends and ex-colleagues are taking time off to celebrate the 4th of July.)

The article cites Gallup data on low employee engagement—the lowest levels in 11 years, to be precise. 

So why do Americans hate their jobs?

Why Americans Hate Their Jobs

Since you likely are, employ, or otherwise interact with Americans, this question deserves an answer. 

Well, the data is clear: Employees are not getting what they would want out of a potentially mutually beneficial relationship, including:

Lack of Purpose

The Business Insider article’s author, fellow European Molly Lipson, says it's mainly about purpose. She quotes a  YouGov study highlighting that only 50% of Americans said their job makes a meaningful contribution to the world. 

Future Work FlexOS Newsletter YouGov Data

As always, not everyone answered this question equally. The younger, the less likely people are to find their jobs meaningful. Differences exist between industries, too: 73% of healthcare workers say they do meaningful work versus only 35% in restaurants and hotels.

Poor management and work environment

Ineffective leadership, lack of support, and limited opportunities for participation and idea contribution significantly impact employees' views of their work. 

Our research on hybrid work showed that most employees only rate their manager a 7/10 and that communication and task planning are the areas managers need to improve most.

As Annie Dean, Atlassian’s VP of Team Anywhere, told me earlier this week, one of the biggest challenges people face at work is a lack of clarity. And leaders need to provide this:
“As a leader you have to be willing to place your bets and say: I have a good planning process, I'm looking at the right information, and I'm good at making a call on what matters to my business unit.” – Annie Dean, VP, Team Anywhere, Atlassian.

Mistrust

You just have to browse the Antiwork subreddit for a few minutes to conclude what we all know: there’s massive mistrust between employers and employees. 

Potentially a very symbiotic relationship, employees feel ‘top management’ doesn’t trust them, resulting in them not trusting the top. 

This has clearly worsened since the post-COVID remote work boom and results in cases like Wells Fargo firing people for using “mouse jigglers.”

It’s nuts.

As organizational consultant Amy Leschke-Kahle told me, it’s time to treat employees like the grown-ups they are:

“You need to treat your employees like responsible, super-smart grown-ups, which almost all of them are. Create that partnership with them and say, how can we help your work be better, to give you space to do some of those things that you wish you could do?” – Amy Leschke-Kahle

Insufficient pay and growth options

According to 2023 Pew research, how much people get paid is at the bottom of people's feelings about their work, only followed by the even-worse number of opportunities to get ahead.

Future Work FlexOS Newsletter Pew Data

According to the same data, people who get paid less are also much less likely to like other aspects of their jobs. 

Age matters a lot here, too: as discussed before, Gen Z and Millennials are stressed to death, in part because their salaries are not keeping up with the rising costs of living. 

Work-life balance issues

In that same article, we also saw how many people suffer from a lack of work-life balance due to work being ‘always on.’

The return-to-office mandates companies like Nike, Zoom, and Apple have been embarking on are not helping either. This is even though Atlassian data confirms that those RTO mandates drove ‘no significant improvement’ in productivity.

Supposedly for ‘connection and community,’ academic research shows that most mandates are simply senior leaders not trusting employees, creating more distrust, as mentioned before. 

We Need to Do Better

I could go on about reasons why people hate their jobs, but let’s ask whether there is an opportunity for happiness at work.

As HR Tech guru Josh Bersin told me in the first Future Work episode of this season, nothing is worse than someone hating their job: 

“It's very hard for me to talk to somebody who hates their job, boss, and company. My wish for the future is that that we can all move into the right position, or that the company will help us fulfill our desires so that work can be ultimately fulfilling.” – HR Tech Guru Josh Bersin.

I obviously agree; since we spend most of our lives working, we better make that time work for us. 

Recent IKEA news provides a great case study of how it can be done.

Plagued by costly turnover, “IKEA’s boss solved the Swedish retailer’s global ‘unhappy worker’ crisis by raising salaries, introducing flexible working and subsidizing childcare,” as Bloomberg’s Matt Boyle reports

Future Work FlexOS Newsletter Bloomberg report IKEA

The results spoke volumes: Voluntary turnover decreased to around 25% of US employees by the end of 2023 from 33% a year earlier. Globally, employees quit at a rate of 17.5% in April from 22.4% in August 2022. 

Shockingly, good things happen when people feel treated fairly.

So whether you’re in the US or outside of it: 

  • Bosses, give your employees the trust and flexibility to work how (hint: AI), where, and where is best for them. 
  • Workers: it’s simple: don’t settle. 

We all deserve better.

Until next week,

Daan

PS: If you have made it this far, reply with the worst thing about your job or the job you left. I love reading your stories. 

FlexOS | Future Work

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Future Work

A weekly column and podcast on the remote, hybrid, and AI-driven future of work. By FlexOS founder Daan van Rossum.