Americans Are Unhappier At Work Than Ever Before—Here’s Why

In this post-Covid-19 era we are living in with flexible WFH policies, greater benefits, and increased pay, it’s a mystery to researchers why a growing percentage of Americans report dissatisfaction with their workplace. But is there more to this story we aren’t understanding?

By Caitlin Shaw4 min read
Pexels/Karolina Grabowska

According to Gallup's 2023 report, the United States has the highest percentage of female employees who experience high work-related stress daily. Other reports have found that, on average, women are more dissatisfied with their jobs than men. The multifaceted reasons are complex and nuanced, but research points to factors like unfair treatment, such as favoritism or wage gaps, as well as lack of culture and connectivity, for explanation. If you’re one of these unsatisfied women, tune in because the data is telling a compelling story.

Despite being past the pandemic, the number of global employees who feel elevated levels of stress at work hit the highest percentages ever recorded (44%). Other negative emotions toward work that were reported include anxiety (41%), sadness (22%), and anger (18%). Additionally, The Wall Street Journal found that 34% of workers dread starting their workday, an 11-point increase from 2020 findings. Furthermore, 69% of Americans, the highest percentage we’ve seen in recent decades, are disengaged at work – either quiet quitting or loud quitting.

Low engagement is one of the most detrimental factors to the economic health of a company. In fact, globally, about $8.8 trillion was lost in 2023 alone due to employee disengagement. In contrast, companies with engaged workers are 23% more profitable than their counterparts. When employees are disengaged and dissatisfied with work, they are four times more likely to switch jobs, which is likely the reason why the job market is experiencing what experts call the “Great Resignation,” or abnormally high turnover rates. In fact, over half of employees globally expressed interest in leaving their current role in Gallup’s report. According to the WSJ, this has created a head-scratching problem in which hiring managers are so focused on filling open positions that little to no effort is spent trying to retain existing talent or help new hires settle into their roles. 

Before you begin speculating on whether the rise in remote work schedules has contributed to this percentage uptick, note that employee disengagement was prevalent independent of work location. Hybrid and remote workers were only marginally more disengaged than on-site workers – meaning, these mere percentage points are insufficient evidence to claim disengagement levels depend solely on work location.

This distinction is important for a few reasons. If workers are unhappy and disengaged at the office and at home, then clearly, increased flexibility and fancy perks are not what employees use to measure job satisfaction. This conundrum has left managers perplexed, as they believe they’re going the extra mile to offer better benefits, greater respect for employees’ work-life balance, and higher pay, only to be met with employee dissatisfaction and low engagement. 

Why Americans Are Unhappy at Work

Seemingly, the only thread of likeness between employees and managers is that both are increasingly dissatisfied at work. So, what is causing this discrepancy in both expectations and performance in the workplace? The simple answer is a lack of human connection.

Moshe Cohen, a mediator and negotiation coach who teaches conflict resolution at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, told The Wall Street Journal, “The idea of slowing down, taking the time, being genuine, trying to actually establish some sort of connection with the other person – that’s really missing.”

The Wall Street Journal speculates that a major catalyst to this issue is the high percentage of long-distance relationships between managers and employees. Over one-third of workers do not live in the same city as their manager, and therefore, feel more disconnected and unsupported in their day-to-day job. This isolation is a likely explanation for why disengagement levels among employees are so high. And that negative sentiment does not just apply to remote or hybrid workers; on-site employees also feel neglected by coworkers and managers.

The sad truth is that, at their core, coworker relationships rest on minimal trust and are transactional in nature. In fact, the WSJ reported that an increasing number of employees describe their colleagues or managers as “toxic” or “impossible.” A lack of human connection or company culture will drastically impact employee satisfaction and engagement. If they don’t care about their colleagues, team building and collaboration will become nearly impossible, and companies will not perform well. Other possible catalysts for employee dissatisfaction and disengagement are a lack of communication from managers, excessive workloads, low pay, lack of career advancement, or micromanagement. 

The Proposed Solution

It may seem like an oversimplification, but if the explanation for employee and manager dissatisfaction is a lack of human connection, the proposed solution, in one word, is people. 

Benefits, compensation, and location of work are not all that matter to employees. Workers want to feel valued, appreciated, and supported by mentors, yet they feel that the workplace is unfair, stressful, depressing, and tiresome. What managers need to focus on is cultivating a workplace culture that supports its employees, makes them feel encouraged, and makes work feel more meaningful. Employers need to stop throwing around superficial offerings like unlimited PTO, free lunch in the office, and work-from-home flexibility, and instead focus on establishing a strong company culture rooted in collaboration and compassion.

At the end of the day, what most of us want from our jobs (aside from being able to pay the bills) is for work to feel meaningful and to foster connection with others. Of course, this is easier said than done, but if employee satisfaction rates are going to go up, bosses need to learn how to connect with those they manage, learn what makes them unique, and help them reach their goals. 

Jon Clifton, Gallup CEO, said, “What can leaders do today to potentially save the world? Gallup has found one clear answer. Change the way your people are managed.” 

If you’re not a manager, there’s no reason to feel helpless. You’re more than capable of speaking up and asking for changes to be made. Try scheduling a one-on-one meeting with your manager and starting the feedback conversation. Communication is key when it comes to fixing any work-related problem, especially one where people lie at the crux.

Ask for feedback from your boss on what you could be doing better and come up with goals together for how to improve. The hope in this strategy is that, firstly, you’ll have a better understanding of your manager’s expectations, and secondly, it’ll open up a door for you to give your manager feedback. Come prepared with examples of aspects of your role or day-to-day you’d like to change and suggestions for how to get there, whether it be culture-related or ways of working with other people.

Jobs with High Satisfaction Rates

If you relate to a lot of what has been discussed in this article thus far, and you feel ultimately burned out with your current job or tired of your toxic workplace, it may be time to make a career shift. The following jobs have some of the highest reported satisfaction rates in the country, so consider learning more about one of these if you’re feeling lost. 

  • Physical Therapists

  • Physician Assistants

  • Occupational Therapists

  • Speech Pathologists

  • Nurse Practitioners

  • Dental Hygienists

  • Veterinarian

  • Psychologist

  • Firefighter

  • HR Managers

  • Entrepreneur

  • Graphic Designer

  • Interior Designer

  • Real Estate Agent

  • Education Administrators

  • Freelancer

Researchers speculate that these careers have some of the highest job satisfaction because either a greater purpose lies at the work’s focal point (i.e., helping others or improving lives) or they are jobs where a high level of autonomy is exercised.

Closing Thoughts 

Work takes up more than 90,000 hours of an average lifetime. So whether we like it or not, a large chunk of our lives is dedicated to working, which makes it all the more critical to turn around the dissatisfaction and disengagement and work together to improve workplaces around the country. 

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