Jon Clifton, CEO of global analytics company Gallup

We’re rich, but ‘in misery’ at work: where did it all go wrong? 

Leadership

Jon Clifton, CEO of global analytics company Gallup, says employee engagement has plummeted post-pandemic and leaders must act now to prevent long-term damage.  

Australia may be one of the richest counties on the planet, however a slow-moving pandemic of unhappiness has crept up on workplaces over the past decade.  

Speaking exclusively to Forbes Australia, Gallup CEO Jon Clifton says while Australia rates as one of the wealthiest countries when it comes to living standards, workplaces remain a source of “misery” for many employees. Inaction could result in long-lasting damage – but there are things leaders can do now to stop the cycle, he says.  

Jon Clifton, CEO of global analytics company Gallup
Jon Clifton, CEO of global analytics company Gallup | Image source: Supplied

According to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace: 2022 Report, only 17% of Australians are engaged in the workplace, well below the global average of 21%. Almost four in 10 Australians and New Zealanders experience daily worry in the workplace and nearly half suffer from daily stress, higher than the global average. One in 5 employees are sad every day they are at work.  

“It’s this lack of appreciation that human beings are human beings also at work. I think that we think that people are robots when they show up at work, that we treat them like automatons and that very challenge is what has created the problem that we have today. 

“We [leaders] think: ‘oh everyone is just an extra pair of hands – treat them the same’, or they’re a blank canvas, but it’s not the case. Everybody brings different strengths and talents and people need to feel heard and recognised for doing great work. If those things are not done, it makes people want to go absolutely nuts,” Clifton says.  

In his new book “Blind Spot: The Global Rise of Unhappiness and How Leaders Missed It’, Clifton explores five key areas that he says are integral to a sense of wellbeing: work, financial, community, physical, and social wellbeing. Of those five areas, three have been unusually impacted over the past decade: loneliness, hunger and misery in the workplace, according to the book.  

“It’s the global loneliness crisis, hunger…and the misery within the workplace,” Clifton says. “It completely remains underappreciated by leaders everywhere and when isolate the 20% of people who are most miserable at work, their daily stress, sadness, anger, physical pain and worry looks more like the people who have no work whatsoever – the unemployed – rather than their peers in the workplace. 

“All leaders worry when unemployment increases. But what about when anger rises, or stress, or sadness? Do they even know it happened — or how to address these growing global issues?”    

– Jon Clifton, CEO of global analytics company Gallup

“There are some things that Australia performs better at [compared to global trends], for example loneliness…but that said, there are some massive improvements that could be achieved in the workplace.”   

The Black Dog Institute says workplace mental health is “inextricably linked” to overall wellness, as most Australians spend more than a third of their adult lives working.  Not only do employers and leaders have a legal obligation to ensure the health and safety of employees, supporting wellbeing makes “good business sense”, it says.  

According to the Black Dog Institute, mental illness is estimated to cost Australian businesses more than $39 billion a year, through loss of productivity, absenteeism and turnover. 

“Creating a mentally healthy workplace should no longer be considered a peripheral concern for leaders. It is something that needs to be at the core of successful, thriving organisation,” Black Dog Institute chief scientist, Professor Samuel Harvey says.  

Covid is not to blame 

The global pandemic has not caused the global trend of unhappiness, in fact, it is something that has been steadily worsening over the past decade, Clifton says.  

Almost four in 10 people surveyed felt worried on a daily basis and nearly half reported feeling stressed most days. In general, women were more worried than men (40% compared to 32%), angrier (17% compared to 11%) and substantially sadder (25% compared to 14%), Gallup’s research found. 

Women are generally more stressed and unhappy in their lives and for that reason Clifton has dedicated a chapter of his book to women’s wellbeing. Generally, he says many women carried the burden of family life during COVID while maintaining employment, contributing to stress and unhappiness.  

“It depends on how you capture happiness. So, if it’s [based] on…anger, stress, sadness, physical pain and worry, then women are doing slightly worse than men, and that gap has widened since the pandemic. One of the easy reasons to explain that is the pandemic was especially hard for women with children, especially working professionals,” Clifton says.  

But when women were asked to rate their lives from zero to 10, women rate their overall happiness as the same as men, if not slightly higher.  

“That figure is one of the most amazing things we found,” he said. “It is true in every single country we survey.” 

How can leaders act now to boost happiness?  

Almost half of Australian employees felt burnt out in the first quarter of 2022, according to the ELMO Employee Index. Because employees are generally more stressed, angrier, sadder and more anxious, those feelings add to the overall feeling of burnout, Clifton says. 

“All leaders worry when unemployment increases. But what about when anger rises, or stress, or sadness? Do they even know it happened — or how to address these growing global issues?”    

Business leaders must now focus on what’s happening in the workplace with people — and why — so they can effectively tackle rising unhappiness, raise morale, and boost productivity, Clifton says.  

Unemployment metrics are unhelpful and give leaders a false sense of what is really happening in the workforce, Clifton says. In many countries, for example, employment takes into account casual work, volunteer work and even begging (which is classified as being self-employed).  

“What if instead of ‘per cent unemployed’, employment metrics asked “per cent in great jobs?’ I think that would cause leaders everywhere to start focusing and trying to meaningfully engage rather than trying to reduce this metric of unemployment – which might include someone who works just one hour a week.  

“If leaders wanted a silver bullet around improving humanity, I think it would be around creating great jobs. A great job is defined as steady work, a steady paycheck and something that is emotionally engaging for people everywhere.”