Are Workers Unhappy on the Job? Yes, But Now They’re Planning to Stay Put

Are employees unhappy at work? My take is that a lot are, and there’s been a lot written in the past year (much of it by me) to support both that thinking as well as the notion that all of those unhappy employees are poised and ready to jump to a new job whenever the getting seems good.

Well, just when you thought that was the case, here comes another survey by Accenture, the global management and consulting company, that puts a little different spin on all of that.

Yes, employees may be unhappy and dissatisfied with their work, but guess what? Dissatisfied or not, “a majority of professionals say they plan to stay with their current employers.”

69% don’t plan to leave their current employers

According to new global research from Accenture titled “The Path Forward,  more than half of both the women and men surveyed (57 percent and 59 percent, respectively) are dissatisfied with their jobs. Despite that job dissatisfaction, however, more than two-thirds (69 percent) of all respondents said they don’t plan to leave their current employers, with nearly the same number (64 percent) citing flexible work arrangements as the reason for wanting to stay put.

If you’re surprised by all of this, well, count me in on that, too, because this is a brand new twist on what has been a growing sense (backed by all sorts of research) that workers were not only unhappy but ready to bolt once the economy improved enough to do so. But why the change — now — after years of growing unhappiness and dissatisfaction?

“We’re looking at a new normal in the workplace,” said Nellie Borrero, Inclusion & Diversity lead at Accenture, in a press release about the survey. “Employees are defining success in a variety of ways, customizing their own approaches and balancing personal demands with their desire to succeed. The challenge for employers is to help employees fully integrate the whole spectrum of work and life needs over the course of their careers.”

I’m sure that’s all a big part of the answer, but I wonder: could it be that the sluggish economic recovery has also slowed the hopes of workers who were ready to go but now are reconsidering that desire? My guess is yes, that has something to do with this change-of-heart that Accenture’s research seems to have tapped into.

Two key findings

Perhaps these two findings put a stronger spotlight on that:

  • When asked about the greatest barrier to their career advancement, respondents cited a lack of opportunity or a clear career path twice as often as they cited family responsibilities (42 percent vs. 20 percent), while almost one-third (32 percent) cited no barriers to their advancement.
  • At the same time, most respondents said they are taking a variety of steps to actively manage their careers — including accepting a different role or responsibility (cited by 58 percent of respondents), receiving more education or training (46 percent), and working longer hours (36 percent).

“Despite current challenges, employees are still striving for success — and energized, engaged employees remain a competitive advantage,” said Adrian Lajtha, Accenture’s chief leadership officer. “Since the majority of today’s professionals are not job hunting, leading companies must capitalize on this moment in time to equip their people with clearly defined career paths that include innovative training, leadership development and opportunities for advancement.”

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Some of the other areas the Accenture research focused on include:

  • Flexible work schedules – The majority (59 percent) of respondents reported having some type of flexible work schedule, and 44 percent of this group said they have used flexible work options for more than three years.
  • Slowed careers – When asked about factors that have slowed their careers, 44 percent of respondents cited the economic downturn, which started in 2008, and 40 percent cited parenthood.
  • Work/life balance – While more than two-thirds (71 percent) of respondents reported having work/life balance most or all of the time, 42 percent said they often sacrifice time with family in order to succeed, and 41 percent said career demands have a negative impact on their family life.
  • Spouses – The vast majority (73 percent) of respondents with a spouse or significant other said that person also holds a full-time job.

How the survey was done

Accenture conducted the online survey of 3,900 business executives from medium to large organizations in 31 countries during November/December 2011. the countries included Argentina, Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Philippines, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States.

A minimum of 100 respondents from each country participated, with the exception of Norway/Sweden/Denmark/Finland, where the combined number of respondents totaled 200. Respondents were split evenly by gender and were balanced by age and level in their organizations. The margin of error for the total sample was approximately +/-2 percent.

“The Path Forward” is an interesting piece of research (and pegged to International Women’s Day on March 8) because it offers a different conclusion to the notion that unhappy employees simply leave for greener pastures when they get a chance. Yes, maybe they would if the economy would cooperate, but when it doesn’t (for a considerable period of time), pragmatic instincts start to kick in and they find reasons to justify staying put.

That’s my take anyway. Maybe you have a different spin or analysis. If that’s the case, I’d love to hear what your conclusion might be in the comments here.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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5 Comments on “Are Workers Unhappy on the Job? Yes, But Now They’re Planning to Stay Put

  1. I wonder what the breakout of just the US would be?  American workers have always been aggressively aspirational in the workplace…

  2. This is good information….but what are the ramifications?  If workers choose to stay, is productivity impacted?  Are they trapped and just slugging it out, or have they decided that work/life balance trumps other needs and are giving 100%.  Without that information, this is just another article about workers and the economy…..

  3. Very interesting, John. I need to read the research, but my initial reaction based on your post is – just how much good work are you getting out of your dissatisfied workers?

    I can see employers reading this research, giving a huge sigh of relief, and thinking, “Great. I don’t have to worry about that anymore. Back to work!” (whip cracking in background)

    And that would be a tragedy, indeed. Unhappy and dissatisfied employees are simply not giving of their best in the workplace. More time is spent fantasizing about leaving, hoping annoying co-workers leave, etc., etc.

    Employer reaction to this study should be instead: “I’m glad they’re staying. I should use this opportunity to uncover the major causes of dissatisfaction, disengagement and unhappiness, then do what I can to ameliorate that.”

    Options can include strengths-based assessments to move people into different roles that may excite and energize them more, look for ways to create a career path (including training and development opportunities), identify ways to enable better work/life balance and – of course – increase positive reinforcement of employee behaviors and achievements through strategic employee recognition.

    All of the options above (and many more not listed) convey to employees how much the organization values them and their efforts.  I’m more engaged when  I know what I do matters. I’m sure that’s true for many others as well.

    1. Great observations, Derek. And like you, I also worry that employers will read this completely the wrong way.

      What the research seemed to miss, I felt, was a good analysis of “why” workers were now resigned to sticking with their current job despite their unhappiness and dissatisfaction. I wish there had been more about what is driving that willingness to now stay put.

      As for myself, I see it simply as a pragmatic reaction to the realities of the economy. In other words, the job market isn’t opening up fast enough or wide enough to make jumping to something new a viable option no matter how unhappy one might currently be.

      And like you, I hope that managers and executives will now take this study and see it as (perhaps) an opportunity to do the right thing and reconnect and engage the workers that so many have taken for granted for so long. 

      Yes, I hope that’s the case, but I’m not holding my breath  — because those are the very same employers who have driven so much of the employee dissatisfaction in the first place.

      Can they change their ways and treat employees better? Of course they can, but will they see that doing so is in their best interest? Well, I think the jury is still out on that question …  

  4. This is fantastic. Accenture admits employees are unhappy but stay because of work/life balance options. It is the only reason I stayed as long as I did, and I was miserable. Former colleagues tell me often how unhappy they still are, the ones who still cling to their jobs despite numerous recent cuts and no hope for growth, but won’t leave because a) not too many other options these days and b) they get to work from home. Doesn’t paint a picture of an employee who wants to give it their all, does it? As soon as more companies get on board with telecommuting and giving jobs to the most qualified candidates vs. who happens to live close enough to be able to drive to the office, they will get an even broader pool of great candidates who will come in with renewed hope and a commitment to add value.

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