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Unhappy American workers

‘So what do you do then?’

Often it is the first question you’re asked when you meet someone new. In a capitalist society, what you do is who you are. Your occupation is a quick way to establish your relative position in the world; to size up your comparative worth. Work plays a highly important part in many of our lives.

According to a recent study, however, it also plays a highly detrimental part in many of our lives: work is making many Americans very miserable indeed. 20% of workers say they face hostile or threatening environments at work, according to the American Working Conditions Survey, one of the most in-depth studies of its kind. This hostility can take a number of forms, including sexual harassment and verbal bullying.

Not only are many Americans working in harmful environments, but work is taking up unhealthy amounts of our personal time. The study of 3,066 US workers by the Rand Corp, Harvard Medical School and the University of California, Los Angeles, found that 50% of respondents have to work in their free time in order to meet the demands of their job and 10% do so nearly every day.

And while we hear a lot about technology prompting a rise in flexible working, most workers have very little control over how, when and where they work. 78% of respondents are required to be in their workplace during work hours and one in three said they had no control over their schedule.

The fairly bleak results of the study came as a surprise to the researchers involved, who noted that the number of Americans working in a hostile environment was “disturbingly high”. But while the researchers expressed shock at the statistics, they didn’t really propose any solutions.

How can this be fixed; how can America, and by extension the rest of us, make workplaces less miserable places to be?

The first thing to do is recognize that the problem is systemic. When so many Americans are unhappy at work, it’s hard to dismiss the problem as simply the fault of a few nasty bosses or overly sensitive employees.

But acknowledging that anything is systemic appears to be difficult in America, the land of individual responsibility. If you’re poor in America, it’s your fault: you’re not working hard enough. If you’re unhappy at work, it’s your fault: you’re not being assertive enough. Go pop a pill or read a business self-help book, apparently Ivanka Trump has a good one out.

It’s easy to blame things on individuals, of course. Solving the complex systemic problems that factor into America’s miserable workplaces, on the other hand, is hard. Take, for example, diversity and inclusion. While America is an incredibly diverse place, many workplaces are still geared around the wants and needs of white men.


Many of the diversity initiatives that big companies have implemented have been incredibly myopic: focusing on trying to hire more “diverse” bodies without looking at ways of creating a workplace culture that will allow these people to thrive. From 2014-2016, Google spent $265m on diversity, for example. However, in 2016, only 2% of Google’s employees were black – the same percentage as in 2014.

And then there’s health insurance. While it wasn’t covered in the research study, the crippling cost of health insurance in America plays a large role in workplace unhappiness.

Being reliant on your employer for health insurance means you’re more likely to stay in a job you hate or suffer from burnout: you simply can’t afford to take time out or take a risk and start your own company or go freelance. The enormous cost of striking out on your own may be one reason that US entrepreneurship is near a 40-year-low and entrepreneurs tend to come from wealthy families.

Ultimately, however, discussions of workplace happiness may soon be moot – thanks to the fact that a growing number of jobs are becoming automated. In 20 years, the world of work will have changed drastically and the question of “what do you do” may well have become obsolete.


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