A sad truth about organizational life

The real question today is why so many large organizations are full of unhappy people, at all levels, who don’t up sticks and go somewhere else. Is this unhappiness because people have to work at jobs they are afraid of losing, even though they hate what they do? Are they forced to stay put working for organizations they fear and distrust?

I’ve been a reader of this blog almost since it started, as well as similar ones which cover the world of work, offer strategies for success and tips for working productively, and describe the mind-numbing idiocies you find in many organizations today. But I have recently started to wonder if one or two important points aren’t being missed.

For a start, most of these blogs are written, and largely read, by skilled and educated people who work in software or computer systems. The advice they give—about how to cope with a bad boss or get more fun from your job—is fair enough for people like them. But most people aren’t like them. “Get a job you love doing” is good advice, but obviously not everyone can follow it.

So why are so many large organizations full of unhappy people at all levels?

For a start, many of them really don’t have the skills or the freedom to go and work somewhere else. Many people do have to work at jobs they hate, but which they are afraid of losing, for organizations they fear and distrust.

But there’s another point being missed as well, I think. Happiness depends not only on the job you do. It also depends, to a large extent, on the kind of organization you work for; what it does, what its values are, and how it functions internally.

Have you got a real job?

The worth of your job, and so your own perception of it; often has less to do with its inherent interest, or whether it’s well-paid and prestigious, than whether it has a useful end-product; whether, in other words, it’s a real job.

You can say that a hospital cleaner has a real job, and so does a farm worker, or somebody selling umbrellas in the street when it’s raining. But an international tax consultant jetting around the world helping companies escape paying tax doesn’t have a real job, even if he or she travels first class and stays in expensive hotels. And a lawyer advising companies on how to get round anti-pollution legislation doesn’t have a real job either, even if she has a lovely house and a wonderful loving family.

Lower down the food-chain, of course, people do even less useful jobs without the compensations even of first-class airline travel. I was shocked, but not really surprised, to read in a review of Michael Moore’s new film that American health insurance companies employ people to covertly investigate claimants to see whether their claims can be turned down on some pretext or other.

How do you live with yourself as a human being in such a job?

“How was your day, darling?”

“Oh, I saved the shareholders a lot of money by pushing a few more families into bankruptcy, what about you?”

You may not personally do these things—any more than you may deceitfully sell mortgages to clients who can’t afford them—but it’s naive to imagine that you can work happily for a company that acts in that way, even if you are a caterer or a personal assistant.

Real jobs can still be lucrative ones

Notice that a worthwhile job doesn’t have to be an altruistic one; it’s perfectly possible to make money, and even become rich, whilst still contributing something to society.

Richard Branson and Steve Jobs, for example, are widely admired, not because they are rich but because they provide goods and services of high quality that people want to buy. So it’s not surprising that when you meet people who work for either of these companies, they tend to be happy in their work, even if what they do is not especially high-profile. And to be fair, I have known happy and fulfilled lawyers and financial advisers, who like to think of themselves as always acting in the best interests of their clients.

We live in a weirdly schizoid society, where we are encouraged to admire people who are rich, irrespective of how they got that way, and to see ruthlessness as praiseworthy and greed (really this time, and not in a film) as good. Yet at the same time—and in spite of what we read in the Economist or the Wall Street Journal—most of us have a good instinctive understanding of whether what we are doing is practically useful, and this affects what we think of our job and the organization we work for, and so how happy we are.

The link with happiness at work

So when we have a job, no matter how well-paid, where we think we aren’t doing something useful, we react by being unhappy. But because we have been taught to identify happiness with money, we assume that we are unhappy because we don’t have enough money, rather than because we have a job of no practical value.

Intelligent and educated people naturally have higher expectations; thus the paradox that the loudest demands for more money come from those who already have too much, who have sacrificed and burnt everything else in their lives to become rich, and now find they are still unhappy. They retaliate, of course, by destroying the happiness of their colleagues and their staff

When I was a child, the male working population (few women worked) overwhelmingly did things with a tangible output. They built cars, dug coal, made steel, worked on farms. In those days, in the working class area of London where I was born, your daddy was a train driver, worked in a factory, dug holes for the Gas Board or worked as a stevedore in the docks.

These days, well, your daddy might have a six-month contract at an outsourced financial services call-centre, where he has to cold call people persuading them to buy special insurance they don’t really need, and he’ll be sacked if he doesn’t meet his target. No wonder people are unhappy.

In the end, all of this comes down to the question asked of sages for thousands of years: “how can I be happy?” The best and simplest reply is the one that sages have always given: “do something useful with your life.”

An Englishman now resident in Europe, John Fletcher has had a long career in the public sector in several countries. He has spent a good deal of time in working environments outside the Anglo-Saxon world, and has written and lectured on organizational issues.

(8 votes, average: 4.5 out of 5)
 Loading …

Sign up for our Email Newsletter

Technorati Tags: , , , , ,

Popularity: 35% [?]