Strong emotions about work- mostly negative

Jan 29 2003 by Brian Amble Print This Article

Employees in North America have intense emotions about their work. And at the moment, these emotions are ones of alienation, anger and disconnection.

This negative picture of the emotional state of the North American workforce is painted in a new study by global human resource consultant Towers Perrin and its research partner, Gang & Gang.

The report, "Working Today: Exploring Employee's Emotional Connection To Their Jobs", is the first study to quantify the emotional nature of the work experience, using an emotion-based methodology. It is based on a randomly selected group of 1,100 employees and 300 senior human resource executives working for midsize to large companies across Canada and the United States.

The report reveals a huge gap between employees’ current work experience and their ideal work experience. Negative emotion about work not only relates to higher turnover rates, but contributes to the kind of workplace malaise that can materially diminish productivity and performance.

Conversely, strong positive emotion correlates with better financial results for an organisation, as measured by five-year total shareholder return.

"Right now, there is an enormous gap between employees’ current and ideal work experience. People know what they want and need to feel intensely positive about their work, but unfortunately many are not getting it," said Mark Mactas, Chairman and CEO of Towers Perrin.

Workload and leadership

In measuring the nature and intensity of employees’ emotions about work, the study shows that, on average, more than half of people’s current emotion is negative and a third is intensely negative.

The reasons for most of this negative emotion are familiar:

  • An excessive workload
  • Concerns about management’s ability to lead the company forward successfully
  • Anxiety about the future, particular longer-term job, income and retirement security
  • Lack of challenge in their work, with boredom intensifying existing frustration about workload
  • Insufficient recognition for the level of contribution and effort provided, and concerns that pay isn’t commensurate with performance.

These negative emotions present troubling implications for employers, particularly regarding retention. For instance, the study shows that among those who are intensely negative about their current experience, 28 per cent are actively looking for a new job or are poised to leave when a new opportunity arises. By contrast, among those who currently feel strongly positive, just six per cent are looking for a new job or are poised to leave.

But nevertheless, a quarter of the intensely negative employees plan to remain with their current employer - suggesting that the company could have a large segment of disaffected workers simply "hanging on" to their jobs and potentially adversely affecting other employees - and customers - with their negative attitudes.

"Without strong positive ties to work or the work experience, employees have little incentive to go the distance or deliver consistently top performance," said Donald Lowman, a managing director of Tower Perrin. "Employers must consider these findings as a wake-up call - and a challenge that management must address.”

The current negative emotion is so strong, he added, that it is unlikely to pass when the economy bounces back.

"Organisations may face real risk when the economy improves and top talent begins looking for greener pastures. For companies dependent on their people’s skills - as most are today - these findings can’t be ignored."

Right diagnosis - wrong reasons

In the face of such strength of feeling, it is unsurprising that the study revealed that the senior executives accurately predicted the mood of their workforces. But it also showed that they have misdiagnosed its cause.

As a result, companies may be investing in some of the wrong things, or failing to do the right things, to shape an effective work environment.

"Employers are overestimating the impact of senior management and nervousness about the future, mistakenly believing they exert more of a negative influence on employees than is the case. Conversely they are underestimating how important it is for employees to feel self-confidence in and from their work," says Martine Ferland, Managing Partner at Towers Perrin's Montreal office.

"Employers also underestimated the importance of professional development opportunities, challenging work, rewards and recognition."

"If a company doesn’t understand the reasons for employee negativity, it may invest in some of the wrong programs - or fail to foster the kind of work environment that builds strong positive emotion," said Lowman. "In reality, creating a positive work environment is well within reach and is largely about reshaping the work experience into something meaningful and personally satisfying for employees."

Positive emotion and company performance

One finding which helps explain why employee emotions are important is that organisations that perform better are ones in which the employees have a more positive emotional response to their work. While this may seem intuitive, this study provides a statistically valid documentation of the relationship.

The research looked at corporate financial performance, as measured by five- year total return to shareholders, and a clear correlation was found between employee positive emotion and financial performance.

The survey also revealed that employees have a very clear sense of their ideal work experience and that there is an enormous gap between it and their current situation.

Employees identified three strong needs that drive their performance and dedication to their organisation: the need to feel connected to, and competent in their work; the need to strengthen their capabilities, develop themselves and build their careers; and the need for recognition.

Employees are not necessarily looking for financial recognition but instead are looking to feel part of something bigger, and to believe they are making a valued contribution to the bigger entity.

So if organisations could deliver on the elements of the work experience critical to strong positive employee emotion - employee confidence, competence, control and contribution - the research suggests that employees' emotional investment in their work would shift dramatically.

The study conducted by Towers Perrin and Gang & Gang in September 2002, surveyed a randomly selected group of 1,100 employees working for mid-sized to large companies across North America, including about 150 Canadians. The respondents were asked to describe their feelings about their current work experience and an "ideal" work experience. At the same time, 300 senior human resource executives (of which about one-third are Canadian) were surveyed about how employees at their company would describe their current work experience. The data showed extremely similar findings for the U.S. and Canada.

A copy of the report is available here