Labor Day used to be a day to recognize the benefits of organized labor and, more broadly, celebrate the American work ethic. More recently, however, it serves as a painful reminder of the deterioration of the American workplace. The national statistics, with unemployment between 9 percent and 17 percent depending on whom you ask, are bad enough. But even for the employed, work has become a barely bearable chore, with only 45 percent of workers in a recent survey saying they were happy with their careers.
Many companies have withheld raises and bonuses over the past two years while reducing other benefits such as employer contributions for health care. With staff reductions, workers are having to do more, with fewer resources, for less in return. Increased stress and lower morale in the workplace can lead to burnout and anxiety, which negatively affect productivity. This contributes to the ongoing economic turmoil which makes it unfeasible for employers to hire more workers, and so on. The cycle continues.
The commonly reported problems for the American workforce are easy to quantify with employment statistics, earnings figures and so on. Unfortunately,these issues tend to be extremely difficult to address. They respond slowly to a wide range of nebulous factors, from government regulations to consumer confidence to, paradoxically, reports on things like unemployment figures. Issues like morale and attitude, which are sometimes more difficult to measure, actually are much easier to tackle. We can all contribute to economic recovery by doing our own small part to improve our work environments.
Treat yourself well. Having a positive attitude starts at home. Practicing healthy lifestyle behaviors increases energy and alertness, keeps you healthier and contributes to better moods. Exercise, eat well, sleep enough, and do fun things outside of work to keep your spirits up.
Treat others well. In today’s busy, stressful work environments it can seem like a waste of time to say encouraging words to colleagues, subordinates and even superiors. But these positive interactions contribute to a more congenial and productive workplace. Treating others well also extends outside the workplace. Being generous with those who are unemployed or underemployed helps us appreciate our own employment more.
Focus on corporate success. By “corporate” success, I mean the success of your group, whether it’s a small project team, your entire department, or a large company. A “me-first” attitude might work to your benefit in a booming economy when jobs and money are plentiful. But with American businesses in belt-tightening mode, “Looking out for Number 1” contributes to tension in the workplace. Don’t shun teamwork, but instead work together to provide customers and clients with exactly what they need.
Work hard and smart. An appeal to do our jobs well seems like a given, but low morale makes it tough to want to contribute. Work isn’t always fun – although it often can be – but overcoming low motivation to perform a task or meet a goal well can be rewarding in itself.
Have a good attitude. The fact that fewer than half of American workers are happy with their careers is troubling. More troubling is that dissatisfaction is higher among younger workers – meaning the problem is likely to get worse. One way to combat this negative trend is to exert positive influence where you can; don’t waste time and emotional energy worrying about what you can’t control. Exhibiting a “we will make it through this” attitude can be infectious.
None of us has the power to turn our economy around single-handedly or overnight. But if we each commit to playing a part in making our work environments better, we will see gradual change for the better.
Note: This article was published as an op-ed piece on September 5, 2011 (Labor Day) by RealClearMarkets.