Why happiness at work doesn't cure itchy feet

Over half of private-sector workers are unhappy - but it's the engaged employees who seem intent on leaving...

by Dave Waller
Last Updated: 05 Jul 2011
Whatever happened to being grateful for a job when the economy turns sour? In the latest contribution to the ongoing 'happiness at work' debate, new research from Mercer suggests that 59% of Britain’s private-sector employees are unhappy at work, and 36% are seriously considering leaving their jobs. That’s according to the consultancy's ‘What’s Working’ research, which surveyed 2,400 workers in over 1,000 UK private sector organisations. And it’s not just those in the lower ranks who are itchy of feet: 41% of managers are seriously considering a move, including 53% of senior managers.

All in all, the survey paints a picture of increasing disengagement. Employees have apparently demonstrated a marked decline in commitment and job satisfaction since 2006, the last time Mercer conducted a similar survey. Only 61% currently say their work gives them a feeling of personal accomplishment - compared to 70% four years ago. And just 55% feel proud to work for their organisation, compared to 60% in 2006.

But it’s not all down to the economic slump. Mercer is also quick to point out another driving factor in how employees perceive their working lot: growing self-interest. The research splits the respondents into three groups: ‘good citizens’, who feel good about their employer and have low self-interest, remaining loyal despite the tough times; ‘assertives’, who feel positive about their employer but who are making decisions in their own self-interest; and ‘passives’, who feel indifferent and potentially victimised.

Amongst the latter group, the report claims only 46% get a sense of personal accomplishment from their work, while just 37% say they are proud to work for their organisation. In comparison, those seriously looking to move score 54% for personal accomplishment and 48% for pride in their organisation.

The words apathy, disengagement and malaise are easily thrown about here, and it’s all too easy to see where they may from - namely a spirit-sapping combination of pay freezes, training and benefit cuts, coupled with limited promotion opportunities. Yet the results suggest those who are keen to move on are actually the ones who are more engaged. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it makes sense that the two may be related: those who aren’t engaged also show a corresponding lack of drive to get off their behind in the first place to do anything about it. And perhaps the most engaged staff are also the most attractive to other employers, thus making it easier for them to move.

So where does this leave employers? In a potentially tricky economic position, with the threat of losing their most proactive people while being lumbered with those who lack the get-up-and-go to find solutions. Not an ideal scenario...

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