Even as more people find steady work and unemployment rates decline, the state of the American labor force isn’t entirely healthy, according to an extensive survey of more than 3,000 workers that shows high rates of stress, uncertainty and general dissatisfaction among the working population.
Release of the landmark study resulted in grabby headlines. More than half of all workers report suffering from stress and challenges to their mental health as a result of their jobs. Nearly one in five say they face a threatening or socially hostile environment in their workplaces, including instances of sexual harassment. Only 38 percent of workers feel their jobs carry a good chance of advancement or professional contentment. While these numbers may be eye opening, there is an important component missing from the study — context. As a one-of-a-kind survey, it’s not possible to easily gauge whether these attitudes are historically high or on a trend either up or down. Nevertheless, when sizable numbers of people report instances of harassment and levels of debilitating stress, there’s a legitimate reason for employers of all kinds to take stock of the environments they nurture in their respective workplaces.
The American Working Conditions Survey was conducted by the RAND Corp., Harvard Medical School and the University of California, Los Angeles, as a way to gather information to compare with data from similar surveys taken in recent years in Europe. The initial report does not immediately make such comparisons. Not all of the information gleaned by the study is negative. Respondents generally acknowledge their jobs are an important source of social engagement. More than half say they feel they have a supportive boss and have made friends at work, while four out of five say their jobs provide “meaning” most of the time.
But a compelling slice of the data points to toxic conditions in some workplace environments, cutting across lines of gender and education levels. The study refers to the fraction of employees who say they have suffered some form of harassment as “disturbingly high.” In that category, young women were more likely to report sexual harassment, while men were more likely to reporting being subjected to verbal abuse.
What are we to take from all of this? First, no working environment is going to produce 100 percent satisfaction 100 percent of the time. Many companies, however, have come to the correct conclusion that operating a fair, safe and transparent working culture is good for business. In a period of nearly full employment, the ability to recruit and retain employees is critical to a venture’s ongoing success. It’s in any operation’s best interest to see to it that its staff is engaged and optimistic. Second, the report brings additional evidence of the problem of harassment in the workplace. Bullying and sexual taunting are not excusable in any context.
The survey provides evidence that many employees find their work experience stressful, unproductive, unfulfilling and even intimidating. That such attitudes are relatively common in office buildings, factories and construction sites is cause for introspection for all of those who hold the title of boss, manager or colleague.