The End of Being Unhappy at Work Is Here

Ok everyone, here goes the experiment, I hope you’re not planning on having any hot drinks while reading this…

I’m a big fan of personal responsibility so let’s start by admitting that we’ve been doing a bad job at this people work thing. All of us. Collectively. I don’t care what job title, what industry, what department or how far removed you think you are from the people business if you’re in a knowledge workplace today unless you’re reading this from Netflix, some fancy scale-up or such -and let’s face it, even then!- then chances are the horrendous amount of HumanDebt we’ve accumulated is at least partly down to you too and there was something, sometime, which you could have done to prevent or diminish it and you didn’t. 

Perhaps it was because you thought it’s not your station because you felt powerless or simply because you didn’t think it was the right time but most likely, any time you shied away from some form of action of the human kind that would have benefitted those around you in the enterprise, it was because you are simply not emotionally invested enough to risk professional life and limb to speak up and instead cover yourself with excuses why this wasn’t really your job. 

How are we all not a lot more indignant and up in arms? How do we muster the denial of the size of the disaster in the workplace? If we’re honest, if we’re completely honest, devoid of any corporate pink glasses, or self-preservation soothing lullabies, it’s truly shocking. 

It’s appalling that people are so disengaged they are borderline suicidal and that 8 in 10 of us are so damaged we are burned out. 

It’s outrageous they dread going into work or logging into that zoom. That they barely feel like they live but like subsist and survive. 

It’s borderline abusive that we expect people to be devoid of feelings and emotions, that we never ask about their wellbeing, family or personal lives and see such inquiries as “informal” and unprofessional, that we never interrogate our teammates about how something makes them feel or what they are truly experiencing from an emotional point of view. 

That even using the words “emotions” or “feelings” makes us recoil in the workplace. That we tut our own horns about how much we love and need innovation and collaboration but do next to nothing to work on the behaviours that create them. That we expect humans to leave their real lives at the virtual or physical door and perform any day, under any conditions, irrespective of what is going on for them in their immediate day-to-day reality. 

That we speak about self-care, purpose, empathy and vulnerability with hesitation at best if not raised shoulders, cowering small voices and expecting exasperated eye rolls and sighs in dismissive responses. Because those are the “fluffy” bits. The Friday after-thoughts. The unessential “other stuff” once “the real, serious work” is done.

It’s realistically a crisis of epic proportions that “grown human beings” are afraid at work. Every day. In so many ways. Afraid of bosses, of deadlines, of having to speak to others, of not having whom to turn to, of telling the truth, of speaking up, of pointing any mistakes, sometimes even of being around each other and having to interact. That they don’t trust the people around them to have their back and they certainly don’t trust their bosses to ever help and the organisation to ever stop hindering and they don’t trust there’s goodwill around them. That they are fearing they’ll be blamed for something or lose something if they engage be it status, quietness or even money or position. No one lives completely fearlessly in the knowledge industry today. 

Wouldn’t you agree all of that is crazy?

And we sit around and gleefully employ enough cognitive dissonance not to overheat with indignation but instead engage in sterile navel-gazing, squint over another consultancy’s wooden language strategy and proprietary framework deck or wax lyrical about absurd concepts such as “culture” and the mythical “organisation”. 

How very dares the organisation not to care enough to have let all this happen? It’s not like they couldn’t afford to do better or they didn’t know better! 

But who is the organisation? Who stands up and says “I am the organisation and the organisation is me?” no one. No one identifies or cares that much no matter how CxO they may be. So who should be ashamed of themselves and feel compelled to do better by all of us then? Who should be remorseful for the amount of possibly inadvertent but still damaging wrongings? Who is going to apologise for the lack of care and respect and fix it?

No one. But that’s ok, no one needs to anymore. 

Here’s the thing, the tide is changing. We’ve all clocked this is unspeakably bad and will no longer stand for it. Do you recall Mel Brooks’ The Producers? There’s a song in it called “Unhappy” - that was all of us whether we wanted to admit it or not whether we dressed it up as “not that bad” and took solace in the actual work outcomes. 

But imagine they all stopped typing and refused to carry on. They stood up and ripped those visors off, and not necessarily went straight to Broadway to kickstart their producer careers but took their accounting machines home, or to the park, or to a year’s hiking journey through Asia to carry on punching when and if they saw fit and they punched best. That’s what’s happening here. And anyone still a middle manager hoping they can be the “CPA” in that video will be trampled in the stampede. 

How big is the stampede? 81% of workers demand flexibility, 49% demand some proof of focus on work-life balance and 47% demand better leaders that are empathic and focus on psychological safety is what this Marching Sheep survey said yesterday. 

There are tens of surveys like it and whichever numbers you choose to believe, chances are that the figures would have been lower last month and will be higher if we ask again later this year. Because this is spreading like wildfire. This new a-ha moment of realisation that we deserve better and that it is our due. 

The zombies are waking up from the trance, the accountant armies refuse to do the robot on the enterprise’s dance floor and everyone points to the naked emperor of organisations that think they can carry on like usual and in denial of what’s happening to mix and match all possible metaphors. 

This is the last stop for the tone-deaf, the control-obsessed, the office-only-deluded, the closed-minded, the insecure, the careless, the desk-chain-sellers, the mean, the bullies, the haters, the talentless, the passion-less, the petty and the slave-drivers. This is where everything changes and many wrongs will start getting corrected with every workplace convention being challenged, examined and tossed aside. 

This is where things will transform so drastically so fast, that our kids will never believe we had bosses who didn’t give a monkey’s about us as human beings and they were careless, derogatory, micro-managing and demanded that we express no emotions and get on with it. In an actual office. From 8:30 to 17:30. Clock-based. Or else. 

That we got together for nothing else but progress reports and we were barely ever part of a team that encouraged and helped each other achieve more. That we felt undervalued and unhappy. Every day. 

They simply won’t square that reality any more than they can comprehend today that we used to have dial phones or analogue terrestrial television programs. That is how different their experience of work is going to be. And you can be on the ride to forge that reality today or uselessly hang on to your “Certified Public Accountant” lanyard for dear life. 

Which is it going to be?

Related: To Team Or Not To Team