Heaven knows we're miserable now

Job insecurity, long hours in the office, too much time commuting. British workers aren't a happy lot
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The Independent Online

It's official: we dread Mondays. Workers in the UK, it seems, are among the most unhappy in the developed world.

It's official: we dread Mondays. Workers in the UK, it seems, are among the most unhappy in the developed world.

Indeed, a new survey of 19,000 staff shows that a mere 36 per cent of British employees enjoy their work, with only Hungary and Japan as even bigger groaners.

"We found the chief reason is job insecurity," says Andrew Oswald, professor of economics at the University of Warwick, who conducted the survey alongside David Blanchflower from Dartmouth College in the US.

"But people who feel this insecurity are unhappy not necessarily because they constantly get laid off but because they constantly leave jobs of their own free will."

In other words, they move on before there's a chance they'll be asked to move on. "It's a vicious circle," says Mr Oswald, "causing them inevitable unhappiness."

Commuting time is very significant, he adds. "We found that those who commute long distances are a lot less cheery. In Britain, particularly the south-east, employees are losing increasingly large chunks of their leisure time to travelling to and from work.

In Greater London, workers have lost an extra hour and a half a week over the last decade. If this spiral continues, the impact will be severe. Since UK employees work the longest hours in Europe - another big reason for unhappiness - it's not as if they have much leisure time to play with in the first place."

Men experience greater unhappiness than women in the UK, the study reveals, although the Industrial Society claims females simply have lower expectations in the workplace and are therefore assumed to be happier with their lot.

When it comes to age, claims the research, job satisfaction is high in the early 20s, falling in the 30s and on the up again in the 40s. "In Britain, it appears that school/university leavers are full of excitement about their plans to conquer the world," says Mr Oswald.

"By their late 20s they have realised how tough and competitive the workplace really is, and for a few years they become saddened by the inevitable drop in aspirations. They then get life into perspective and are able to enjoy their career again."

The research found no evidence that technology is to blame for workplace depression in the UK.

While other surveys have highlighted the problem of information overload from electronic messages, Mr Oswald says that "emails also have their benefits and often save a great deal of time". But he adds: "I can see that it may become a prob- lem in the future. Right now, emails are still something of a novelty."

Danish workers have the best morale, with 62 per cent saying they were "very satisfied" or "completely satisfied" with their jobs. "Other small Western democracies such as the Netherlands and Switzerland also come high on the list," says Mr Oswald.

"This echoes how well they do on general happiness and mental health surveys. It is linked with the high level of personal freedom that citizens feel they have. In Switzerland, research consistently shows that the more democratic the region, the higher the level of happiness of people living there."

This rationale, he adds, partly explains "why so many Japanese workers are cheerless". Although Japan is a free country, its workplaces are notoriously dogmatic and demanding. One recent survey of Toyota in Japan showed that 124,000 out of 200,000 employees were found to be suffering from chronic fatigue.

"So great is the impact of freedom", says Mr Oswald, "that we found seemingly tiny ways of giving workers autonomy in the workplace greatly affect levels of happiness. Workers who can, for example, move their desk round a little and change the lighting and temperature of the office show up strongly in our satisfaction scores."

It is for this reason that the self-employed are among the most contented workers. "We found that even those who earn relatively little are happy in their work," says Mr Oswald. "The return they are after is psychological rather than financial."

The research also showed that happiness is related to the size of the company - a finding confirmed by Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology: "In Britain, big companies tend to have much lower morale among their workers. The smaller the environment, the bigger your role as an individual and the more you know you'd be missed if you were not there."

Other reasons for the UK being low down on international rankings include lack of communication about management decisions, outdated incentives and office politics. "Petty irritations have long been a source of warfare in the office. But modern pressures at work mean they are now more likely to affect staff relations and job satisfaction," says occupational psychologist Dr Marilyn Davidson.

It all comes back to job insecurity: "It makes people feel it's more than their job's worth to vent anger in the boss's direction, so they do so in the direction of colleagues and subordinates instead."

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