The Happiest Workers in the World
The crisis of worker confidence is as inescapable as the daily news -- and we expected the first annual Inc./Gallup survey to reflect it. Boy, were we surprised
1. Fear and loathing in the new economy
Exactly when did "economic anxiety" become the emotional bumper sticker for our coast-to-coast collective unconscious?
Was it when Pat Buchanan (remember him?) won New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation presidential primary, reminding rivals in both parties that the electorate really is mad as hell? Or was it later in March, when the New York Times saw fit to run seven straight days of page-one stories on the downsizing of America? Or was it all the way back in 1993, when employment-for-life apostle IBM announced its first-ever five-digit layoff?
By now in any case, the supposed crisis of worker confidence is as inescapable as the daily news -- and we expected the first annual Inc./Gallup survey on work and the American workplace to reflect it.
In headlines that glare at us every waking moment of every working day, we are told that corporate downsizings, mergers, and other belt-tightening measures leave us hemorrhaging jobs. Politicians from both the left (Edward Kennedy) and the center (Bill Bradley) express concern as eagerly as Buchanan did from the right. Bradley, the would-be third-party moderate, writes, "Economic anxiety eats away at people who work in America."
The statistics seem bad enough -- on average, 37,000 jobs were cut every month in 1995 -- but perhaps the more stinging signs of unease are anecdotal and very close to home.
For instance, my own children -- though successful grad schoolÑeducated teachers -- wrestle with the need to work other jobs and train for other careers to feel secure. Both realize that their working lives will be a jigsaw puzzle of jobs, projects, and skills-gathering expeditions. Both, though fulfilled by their work, are exhausted and daunted by the effort of keeping the puzzle together.
Who hasn't heard similar testimony? "Everyone is a contingent worker," observes William Bridges, author of JobShift: How to Prosper in a Workplace Without Jobs (Addison-Wesley, 1994). We will come to see our times, he says, as the great dejobbing of America, leading to a day when all jobs come and go according to the changing needs of a company and its customers -- a fine and flexible day indeed for those companies and customers, but a fearful one for employees on a quest for career stability and some sense of control over the course of their lives. The unknown is a breeding ground for free-floating anxiety.
And out of that anxiety comes the brand-new conventional wisdom that the American dream -- the dream that living standards will forever rise, that we'll do better than our parents, and that our children's lives will be better than ours -- is ailing.
Or dead.* * *
2. Who's to blame? Part 1
Although the news accounts of our economic unease are broad and sweeping, they are quite specific about the root of our troubles. They lay blame squarely on the shoulders of greedy, heartless, soulless business. "Is the American Worker Getting Shafted?" asks the January 22 cover headline of U.S. News & World Report. The implied answer is all too clear: yes. The implied culprit? Business.
The theme is pounded on repeatedly not just by journalists but by policymakers of every stripe at every level. Chief among them is Robert Reich, President Clinton's labor secretary, who passionately proclaims that the implicit social compact between employer and employee, which used to guarantee workers' job security, "has come undone" and should be put right. Legislation has been filed. Theories of "new corporate citizenship" have been advanced.
It's not hard to understand why Reich's sentiments are widely shared. Given the hundreds of thousands of layoffs over the past several years, the argument goes, business must be failing us. And there is plenty of corroborating evidence that the public in fact sees our economic future as relatively bleak. The upshot? Whatever societal changes we face and whatever forces are producing them, business is simply not pulling its weight to help us through. Business -- we keep being told -- is harming America.
But do workers agree? They may be troubled, but do they think business is to blame? In the flood of coverage on economic insecurity, worker unease, and "the anxious class," we noticed an alarming absence of information about how workers see their own jobs and workplaces. Not how they see the future or the state of the economy overall -- many surveys have described diminished expectations or wounded hopes -- but how they assess their own situations. No one has been asking working Americans -- about 118 million of us -- how we are doing on the job and what we think of our employers.
So we at Inc. did just that. In partnership with the Gallup Organization, we surveyed Americans nationwide to ask questions like these: Are you worried about losing your job? Does the stress of work cause you to behave badly with your family? Does your management do what's necessary to make your company a great place to work?
The survey was conducted in November 1995. We asked randomly selected working adults throughout the United States to agree or disagree with 34 statements about their jobs, their workplaces, and their job security.
The results were nothing like what we expected.* * *
3. What American workers really think
We expected the same answers we bet you would: hard times on the job, rough handling by employers, fears about the future. Try this test: Ask folks at your next neighborhood barbecue to predict the responses to the national survey. What percentage of Americans do they think are worried about losing their jobs? Maybe 50%? More? What percentage do they think feel fairly paid? Say, 25%? And how many people do they think would say that management does whatever's necessary to make their company a great place to work? Hmmm, 10%? On a good day.
What other kinds of answers could we expect from a citizenry that's been depicted as economically threatened?
Positive ones, it turns out.
Across the board the 34 questions prompted upbeat -- sometimes even glowing -- responses. Could this be the same American workforce we've been reading about? (See below for a copy of the survey questionnaire, a complete breakdown of the answers, and a description of how the poll was conducted.) A sampling of the results:
- 90% of the respondents said that they were not worried about losing their jobs (even though 39% said they had friends who lost jobs because of downsizing).
- 69% believed they had been compensated fairly over the past year.
- 75% said they had not had three or more days in the past month when stress caused them to behave badly with their families.
- 70% said that management did what was necessary to make their company a great place to work.
- 80% said that their company was "family friendly."
- 82% said that every day they have an opportunity to do what they do best.
Perhaps most contradictory to current popular consensus was this finding: 63% of workers felt more secure in their jobs than they did a year ago, compared with only 20% who felt less secure. (Seventeen percent felt about the same.) What's more, when asked to rank their level of satisfaction with their place of employment -- on a scale from 1 to 5, with 5 representing "extremely satisfied" -- 71% rated it at 4 or 5 while only 9% rated it at 1 or 2.
Are Americans worried about the practical matter of keeping a job? No. Do they think their employers treat them fairly? Yes. And from the most personal perspective, do they feel their jobs fulfill them and enrich their lives? Yes again.
To better assess whether the survey results are as positive as they initially appear, we compared our findings with those of similar national surveys conducted by Gallup in 1994 in Canada, Mexico, Great Britain, Japan, and Germany. The results from the working populations of those countries were also more positive than negative, but not nearly as positive as those in the United States. And American workers are hands-down more positive about how they are treated by their employers than are workers in any other country. To the question "In the past seven days, have you received recognition or praise for good work?" 62% of U.S. workers answered yes. The next highest percentage of yes answers came from Canada, with 54%. Germany registered 36% yes answers and Japan a meager 33%. The same relative findings emerged from questions about whether someone had talked with employees about their progress at work and whether supervisors seemed to care about them as people. U.S. workers, it appears, aren't just happy. They seem to be the happiest workers in the world.
Still, interpreting survey results is sometimes a matter of how one wants to cast the light. So here's another angle: Imagine you're the manager receiving positive answers to a survey of your own workforce. (To make this proposition real, you can conduct the survey, using the questionnaire on below.) What would you think if you saw that 84% of those surveyed felt that their supervisors seemed to care about them as people? That a whopping 96% of them said that they knew what was expected of them at work? That 82% felt that every day they had the opportunity to do what they do best? That 87% said that the mission of their employer made them feel important? That 69% felt they were compensated fairly? That 79% were not looking for another job?
Wouldn't you be thrilled with how satisfied -- even how downright happy -- the vast majority of your employees appeared to be? You'd probably think you were doing a pretty good job.* * *
4. What's wrong with this picture?
Why then do journalists, policy-makers, and politicians paint such a dismal portrait of the American workplace, indicting business and business owners in the process? Are they wrong? In an environment of much-hyped public sentiment that the economy is going to hell in a handbasket, what are we to make of the positive results from the Inc./Gallup survey? Does the poll give the lie to everything we've heard about economic jitters? Is it wrong?
The overall health of the U.S. economy is hard to read. At a time when we have the lowest unemployment rate in almost 30 years, real wages have fallen from a 1979 average of $24,000 for a high school graduate to a 1995 average of $18,000. And there is unquestionably concern among American workers about what the future holds. Still, it's difficult in the face of our survey not to conclude that there's something the gurus and opinion makers aren't getting. In his recent book, How to Tell When You're Tired: A Brief Examination of Work (W. W. Norton, 1995), Reg Theriault uses Karl Marx to explain the shortcomings of many economic thinkers: "Marx, it appears, lacked insight into the reality of day-to-day work, perhaps because he never really held down a job."
But amateurs appear to have trouble interpreting the work-related feelings of their compatriots, too. The regular folks we asked to read our survey results were shocked at the positive findings. Doubt and denial were the common reactions. To collect more anecdotal research and test theories about the apparent mismatch between public perception and statistical reality, we asked a number of people (staff members, relatives, passersby) to answer the questionnaire before looking at the results. Every one of them answered the majority of the questions positively -- yet everyone was astounded at the overwhelmingly positive response of the nation as a whole.
It became clear that a gap has grown between how Americans feel about their daily work and how they feel about the economy as a whole. People feel good about their own jobs -- but they believe that the rest of U.S. workers are about to lose theirs.
Why?* * *
5. I'm okay. You're really screwed.
The simplest explanation may have to do with emphasis. Don Clifton, chairman of the Gallup Organization, reconciles the perception-reality mismatch this way: "We ought to feel good about where we are, but there's just so much opportunity to manage better. Though 75% said their work doesn't cause them to behave poorly with their families, 23% said it does. That's a lot of people."
Skeptics that we journalists are, we took a similar angle when we first got what seemed to us surprisingly positive results. Sure, only 9% of the adult working population scored their work satisfaction at a level 1 or 2 on the five-point scale -- but that's still somewhere between 9 million and 11 million unhappy people in our workforce on any given day. Several million unsatisfied people can make some serious noise and have a sobering effect on the public's mood about the state of the economy.
The fact remains, however, that when asked specifically about their workplaces and their own jobs, the vast majority of the working adult population in the United States is remarkably satisfied. So why do Americans appear to believe the worst about the circumstances of their neighbors, even though their own work lives are fine?
Some possible explanations:
Bad news sells. Perhaps we have a dim view of the country's prospects because, as Robert J. Samuelson observes in The Good Life and Its Discontents: The American Dream in the Age of Entitlement, 1945Ñ1995 (Times Books/Random House, 1995), "the nature of the modern press gives the worst side of us much more exposure and respectability than ever before."
We were reminded of just how much you can twist positive news by a front-page blurb in the "Work Week" column of the January 16 Wall Street Journal, soon after the publication of Samuelson's book last year. Under the boldfaced heading "Does Money Buy Happiness?" the Journal writes: "Samuelson . . . quotes a survey showing that 6% of people making $75,000 or more describe themselves as 'not too happy." It appears we're supposed to be alarmed that so many people making that kind of money are unhappy. But what about the 45% making more than $75,000 who said that they were very happy? Or the other 49% who said that they were pretty happy? Samuelson reports it all in his book. He also cites another survey in which 80% of us say that we're satisfied with our lives. Eighty percent! Ninety-four percent of those making $75,000 or more are happy! Yet the Journal turned the unhappy 6% into news. Funny? Yes. Unusual? No.
As recently as last fall, the Hay Group, a management-consulting firm with headquarters in Philadelphia, reported findings from its 1995Ñ1996 employee-attitudes study suggesting that despite downsizing, workers are generally more upbeat about their employers than they were five years ago. According to the Hay report, overall job satisfaction was up from earlier surveys, and pride in one's company was high across all job levels. The news of the Hay study seems to have fallen on deaf ears when it came to press coverage. Few media outlets picked up the findings. Good news just doesn't sell.
Bad news gets promoted even by the people making it . Consider the daily doses of news on massive corporate layoffs. While companies are laying off workers regularly, the job losses are more than offset by new jobs in the same industries. Why don't we hear about that? One, the media don't report it much -- and when they do, they bury the good news deep in the story. Twenty-one paragraphs into a cover feature headlined "Economic Anxiety" in the March 11 Business Week is this information: "During the past two years, the seven regional telephone companies have slashed some 125,000 jobs, on top of the 40,000 latest cuts announced at AT&T. Nevertheless, the industry's total employment rose by 91,000 during the period, as companies beefed up employment in cellular and other fast-growing businesses."
Sometimes the new jobs are added by the same companies that announce the cuts. Last October, when AT&T announced it would eliminate 8,500 people from its personal-computer division, it also was hiring hundreds in its new consulting and systems-integration divisions. But we hear about the fires, not the hires. Corporate America has learned that a good thing happens when you broadcast a sense of prudent cost management and rigorous-if-ruthless leanness: your stock price goes up. So, got some jobs to cut? Call a press conference.
The halo effect. Isn't it curious that according to surveys, most Americans hold gloomy views about the economy at large while at the same time they've told us that as individuals they're doing just fine in their own workplaces? Curious, perhaps. But not unusual. In fact, the I'm-okay-but-nothing-else-is worldview is a predictable pattern -- not just in surveys on the economy but also in surveys on religion, public schools, and almost every aspect of life that's been the subject of a poll.
- A recent Knight-Ridder poll of 1,200 registered voters showed that about 60% of those surveyed were pessimistic about the overall direction of the country's economy while an almost equal number were optimistic about their own personal finances, a response that was buried six paragraphs down in a Miami Herald report of the survey, which carried the headline "Economic anxiety now transcends class lines."
- In its annual poll on religious trends, Gallup asks these questions: "How important would you say religion is in your own life -- very important, fairly important, or not very important?" and "At the present time, do you think religion as a whole is increasing its influence on American life or losing its influence?" When asked about religion in their own lives, roughly 60% of adult Americans have responded pretty consistently in each of the past five years that religion is very important to them. During those same five years, almost 60% of adult Americans have also said that they believe religion is losing its influence. Trouble is, if the latter 60% had been right about religion's losing its influence year after year, the percentage of people who feel that it's very important in their own lives should have dropped. It didn't. That first 60% figure held steady.
What we're seeing is a halo effect, says Benjamin R. Barber, a political scientist at Rutgers University. "You know, people hate Congress except for their own congressperson. You read about layoffs, and you probably feel that your firm won't do that, but meanwhile you're reading stories that lead you to have a sense of foreboding not necessarily tied to anything in your own experience. That allows you to say, 'Hey, I'm exempt from all this.' Your immediate workplace doesn't give you any reason for anxiety, but the picture you're getting of the global workplace and NAFTA and downsizing makes you feel deeply anxious in some vague way."
The watercooler syndrome. You know the scenario. Four employees gather around the watercooler or coffeepot and listen to one among them gripe about how awful his job is. He's treated unfairly, never gets a competent review, and has a boss who doesn't say boo to him, let alone praise him for a job well done. You, on the other hand, are feeling pretty good about your job, your boss, your workplace -- as do, unbeknownst to you, the two other listeners. But rarely, if ever, do the others look the complainer in the eye and say, "Nah, that's just you. I know your work. You stink."
Instead, the tendency is to sympathize -- and worse, to join in on the complaining. The result: you leave the watercooler thinking not that one person hates his job (because he's bad at it) but that everybody but you does.
Whether it's at the watercooler, in the media, or from our politicians, we are fed a steady diet of lament about what's wrong with the institutions we depend on. Ours has become, as social critic Robert Hughes observed, "a culture of complaint." It's no wonder that the employee leaving the watercooler finds the positive results of a workplace poll running contrary to everything he's been hearing.* * *
6. What you see isn't what you get.
Each of the hypotheses tries to explain why the Inc./Gallup survey revealed such positive feelings about the economy at a time when any poll seemed destined to uncover the opposite. Yet even the pundits who find the results reasonable have a hard time accepting that the respondents are telling the whole story. "There's got to be some denial," says Professor Barber. "There's no way people can be exposed to this kind of insecurity and still feel so sound and convinced about their own relationship to their own jobs."
As we look around us -- hearing what we hear, reading what we read, seeing what we see -- we just can't bring ourselves to believe that workers are as positive as they appear to be about their own workplace and their role in it. How can they be, when we see how overworked and overwrought they are?
In his essay "Economy and Pleasure," in What Are People For? (North Point Press, 1990), writer and farmer Wendell Berry tells the story of a December day spent with his granddaughter, Katie: The two of them hitched a team of horses to a wagon and hauled soil to cover a barn floor. It was cold, and Berry let his granddaughter drive the team of horses for the first time:
She did very well, and she was proud of herself. She said that her mother would be proud of her, and I said that I was proud of her.
We completed our trip to the barn, unloaded our load of dirt, smoothed it over the barn floor, and wetted it down. By the time we started back up the creek road the sun had gone over the hill and the air had turned bitter. Katie sat close to me in the wagon, and we did not say anything for a long time. I did not say anything because I was afraid that Katie was not saying anything because she was cold and tired and miserable and perhaps homesick; it was impossible to hurry much, and I was unsure how I would comfort her.
But then, after a while, she said, "Wendell, isn't it fun?"* * *
Maybe, like Berry, we are too eager to project our recognition of big-picture tough circumstances onto our expectations about how people feel about their work.* * *
7. Who's to blame? Part 2
The real lesson of the Inc./Gallup survey, perhaps, is to show that people don't necessarily feel the same about their work and workplace as they do about their economic circumstances and prospects. They can feel betrayed by the country's economy and its effect on real wage levels. They can feel overwhelmed by the pace of change wrought by technological advances. But they can feel those things deeply without feeling unhappy with their jobs -- and without feeling that the problems are caused by their employers. "Is the American Worker Getting Shafted?" the U.S. News & World Report headline asks. Not according to the people who responded to our poll.
Perhaps most Americans realize individually what collectively we as a nation too often forget: that companies aren't job banks for the lifestyle benefit of those they employ. Indeed, perhaps most workers realize that if companies were run that way they would fail and provide no jobs at all. Companies, workers understand, have to compete.
Here then is a better way to reconcile on-the-job satisfaction with overall economic angst: it's possible for individuals to like their work and feel good about their employers -- to know that given the world's cutthroat competitive climate they're being cared for as well as possible -- while still feeling that their economic circumstances fall short of what they'd expected or hoped for or simply believe they need.
Which means that even if economic anxiety is real -- a consequence of structural change on a global scale -- and that we as a nation, business owners included, have to address it, we should be careful when identifying its source. Although we can blame many things for the malaise about the future of the economy in the United States (and in this presidential-election year, plenty of blame will be spread around), we shouldn't lay the blame on the American workplace.* * *
For the survey questionnaire and full results, see below.* * *
Because rigorous surveying methodology requires anonymity of randomly selected respondents, those surveyed could not be identified to be photographed. The subjects of the pictures accompanying this article were probably not included in the national survey conducted by the Gallup Organization and Inc. They were chosen to reflect a cross section of employees at a variety of business and institutional work sites around the country. They were interviewed by Jerry Useem (jerry_useem@inc mag.com), a reporter at Inc.
Jeffrey L. Seglin (email@example.com) is an editor at large at Inc.
WHAT WORKERS WANT
Based on the survey results and an analysis by the Gallup Organization, the most critical factors bearing on employees' satisfaction and job performance seem to be the following:
- At work, employees have the opportunity every day to do what they do best.
- A supervisor or someone at work seems to care about them as people.
- At work, employees' opinions seem to count.
- Over the past year, employees had opportunities to learn and grow.
The mission of their employer makes employees feel that their jobs are important.
- Employees have the materials and equipment to do their work right.
Employees' companies are "family friendly."
FOR WORKERS, SMALL REALLY IS BEAUTIFUL
Workers at small companies -- those with 50 or fewer employees -- were more positive about their jobs and their workplaces than workers at any other size companies. Here are some examples:
Percentage responding YES
|1. This past year, have you had opportunities at work to learn and grow?||89%||84%|
|2. Does the mission of your employer make you feel your job is important?||91%||87%|
|3. Do you have the materials and equipment you need to do your work right?||93%||86%|
|4. In terms of your potential, about what percentage of your ability do you use in your work?||81%||78%|
|5. Do you want to be a leader in your company someday?||51%||41%|
|6.Does your management do what is necessary to make your company a great place to work?||82%||70%|
|7.Is your company a good workplace for all of the people or for only the privileged few?||84%||74%|
|8.Have you ever owned your own business?||45%||28%|
The positive attitudes of small-company employees toward their work environment are directly counter to the observations made by big-company pundits, such as Bennett Harrison, author of Lean and Mean: The Changing Landscape of Corporate Power in the Age of Flexibility (BasicBooks/HarperCollins, 1994) . Harrison and others claim that the jobs created by small businesses are the scut jobs of the economy, with little security and terrible working conditions. In the early days of the Clinton administration, Robert Reich referred to those jobs as "hamburger flipper" jobs. The responses from small-company employees in the Inc./Gallup survey suggest a dramatically different situation. Across the board, small-company employees share in the positive response about their jobs and workplace; in fact, they're frequently even more positive than their big-company counterparts. They may be flipping hamburgers, but they're mighty happy doing it.
ARE YOU STARTING YOUR OWN BUSINESS?
In spite of the overwhelmingly positive response to questions about their workplace, working Americans dream about starting their own business.
Thirty-two percent of the adult working population -- or almost 40 million people -- have never owned their own business but dream of starting one. And 19% of those dreamers -- almost 9% of the adult working population, or almost 10 million people -- are currently in the process of starting their own business.
Twenty-eight percent of those surveyed had once owned their own business, and 59% of them -- representing 17% of the adult working population, or just over 20 million people -- still own that business.
THE INC./GALLUP SURVEY: AMERICANS AT WORK
1. On a 5-point scale, where 1 is extremely dissatisfied and 5 is extremely satisfied, how satisfied are you with your place of employment?
2. At work, do you have the opportunity every day to do what you do best?
3. Does your supervisor or someone at work seem to care about you as a person?
No response 4%
4. Do you know what is expected of you at work?
No response 1%
5. In the past seven days, have you received recognition or praise for good work?
No response 2%
6. At work, do your opinions seem to count?
No response 1%
7. Is there someone at work who encourages your development?
No response 2%
8. In the past six months, has someone at work talked to you about your progress?
No response 1%
9. This past year, have you had opportunities at work to learn and grow?
No response 1%
10. Are your associates (fellow employees) committed to doing quality work?
No response 2%
11. Does the mission of your employer make you feel that your job is important?
No response 1%
12. Do you have the materials and equipment you need to do your work right?
13. Do you have a best friend at work?
No response 1%
14. In terms of your potential, about what percentage of your ability do you use in your work?
15. Do you believe you will continue with your current company until you retire?
No response 6%
16. From your most objective viewpoint, have you been compensated fairly this past year?
No response 1%
17. Are you more secure or less secure in your job than you were a year ago?
More secure 63%
Less secure 20%
About the same 17%
18. Do you want to be a leader in your company someday?
No response 2%
19. (If yes to 18) Do you think you will become a leader in your company someday?
No response 6%
20. Is your company family friendly?
No response 3%
21. Does your management do what is necessary to make your company a great place to work?
No response 3%
22. Is your company a good workplace for all of the people, or for only the privileged few?
All people 74%
No response 3%
23. In the past month, have you had three or more days when the stress of work caused you to behave badly with your family?
No response 2%
24. Are you currently looking for a different job?
25. In the past week, have you been worried that you might lose your job?
No response 1%
26. Do members of your family worry about your losing your job in the next year?
No response 1%
27. In the past year, have any of your friends lost jobs because of downsizing?
No response 1%
28. Do you worry that your job may become obsolete because of advances in technology?
No response 1%
29. At work, has your boss ever asked you to do something unethical or dishonest?
No response 1%
30. Have you ever owned your own business?
31. (If yes to 30) Do you still own that business?
32. (If no to 30 or 31) Do you dream of starting your own business?
No response 1%
33. (If yes to 32) Are you currently in the process of starting your own business?
No response 1%
34. (If no to 33) Do you plan to start a new business in the next two years?
No response 4%
How the Inc./Gallup survey was conducted In November 1995 the Gallup Organization conducted a nationwide employee survey for Inc. magazine. The purpose of the study was to investigate the extent to which full-time employees agree with statements regarding their workplace experiences. All participants were required to be at least 18 years old and employed at least 30 hours a week. With the survey methods used and a sample of 803 respondents, the resulting maximum expected error range, at a 95% confidence level, is plus or minus 3.5%.
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