Lucy Kellaway: Why is work making us miserable?

Office life is better than ever before, but dissatisfaction is rising

The boss of a friend recently gathered all his charges together for a ritual new year pep talk. “Each of you has the right to love your job,” he told them.

She thought this was terrific and looked a bit dashed when I pointed out it was both dangerous and unrealistic. No one has the right to love their jobs. Not only that, most people hate them.

If you type into Google "my job is –" the search engine predicts the way your sentence is going: "so boring" or "making me suicidal" or " making me miserable". If you start "my boss is –", Google offers: "lazy", " is bullying me" or (my favourite) "a cow". Even more alarming, if you type "my job is stimulating", it assumes you have made a typo and suggests what you must have meant "not stimulating".

The internet has a way of whipping up bad feeling. Yet in this case, workplace disaffection is real and growing. We are in the middle of what Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor at UCL in London, calls an “epidemic of disengagement”. Most surveys show less than a third of workers care for their jobs, and the long-term trend is getting worse. In the UK, there is some evidence we like our jobs a good deal less than we did in the 1960s.


This is most peculiar. I was not in the workforce in the 1960s. But I was in the 1980s, and can confirm things are better than they were back then. When I joined the City, pre-Big Bang, it was stuffed with upper-class men in pinstripes, many of whom were astonishingly dim.

Jobs were still for life, so if you landed one you did not like, you were trapped. Promotions took ages, and even then were largely based on Buggins’ turn and who you played golf with. Bullying was so normal no one thought to complain. Office buildings were dingy, dirty and uncomfortable. There was no such thing as ergonomic chairs, and you were likely to get lung cancer from all the passive smoking.


Now, not only are offices bright and beautiful, we do not even have to go to them if we do not feel like it – we can work at home instead. Bosses have been taught not to shout. There are gyms and free fruit. And if you happen to be a woman, things have improved beyond recognition. In the 1960s you were limited to filing and shorthand, while now (at least in theory) you can run the show. So why are we so miserable?

The most common reason is having a bad manager. But this is a puzzle as managers are surely less hopeless now than they were half a century ago. All those MBA degrees, mentoring, coaching and training, none of which existed 50 years ago, cannot have been entirely in vain.

Part of our modern disaffection may be due to job hopping. Because we can leave at the drop of a hat, we are less likely to make a go of wherever we are. If everyone is constantly coming and going, no one ever feels secure or has any sense of belonging.

But the biggest reason for unhappiness is that we expect too much. Office jobs may have improved, but our expectations have far outstripped them. Better education has not helped. People with university degrees tend to dislike their jobs more than people without them. And so, as more people have degrees, unhappiness rises. As we march up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it is harder to enjoy the view from the top.


Things are made worse by the well-meaning actions of the companies themselves. Faced with a disaffected workforce, they insist it is vital for us to be happy. They trumpet their values. They tell us they are changing the world. They demand we are all not merely engaged, but passionately so. They encourage us to volunteer at good work, all in the name of meaning.

The result is not happiness. According to new research from Sussex university, when done crassly this sort of thing makes workers unhappier and more disenchanted than they were before.

The corporate obsession with happiness is part of the cause of our unhappiness. When everyone around you is claiming to feel passion or to have found meaning, or when managers say you have a right to love what you do, it is only natural – at the smallest hint of boredom, or after a minor run-in with a manager – to conclude that your job makes you suicidal and your boss is a cow.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017