70 percent of Americans hate their jobs — how about you?

By Caitlin Kelly

Now here’s cheerful news. This by Tim Egan in The New York Times:

Among the 100 million people in this country who hold full-time jobs,
about 70 percent of them either hate going to work or have mentally
checked out to the point of costing their companies money — “roaming the
halls spreading discontent,” as Gallup reported. Only 30 percent of
workers are “engaged and inspired” at work.

At first glance, this sad survey is further proof of two truisms. One,
the timeless line from Thoreau that “the mass of men lead lives of
quiet desperation.” The other, less known, came from Homer Simpson by
way of fatherly advice, after being asked about a labor dispute by his
daughter Lisa. “If you don’t like your job,” he said, “you don’t strike,
you just go in there every day and do it really half-assed. That’s the
American way.”

The American way, indeed. Gallup’s current survey,
covering two years, is a follow-up to an earlier poll that found much
the same level of passive discontent from 2008 to 2010. Even in an
improving economy, people are adrift at work, complaining about a lack
of praise, with no sense of mission, and feeling little loyalty to
their employer.

Not surprisingly, the primary reason that people hate their jobs is their boss — who ignores them, bullies them, or undermines them. Sad, considering how many of us spend most of our time at work.

I was very lucky, in my first newspaper job at the Globe and Mail, to have the best boss ever. None has ever matched his rare combination of high standards, praise when warranted, low-key style and, best of all, someone who kept offering me terrifyingly difficult and unfamiliar assignments — which always ended up on the front page of that national paper.

New York journalism? Not so much, sorry to say.

Self Employment Tax Form - Schedule SE
Self Employment Tax Form – Schedule SE (Photo credit: Philip Taylor PT)

A few of my tormentors bosses here:

— The woman editor-in-chief at a medical trade magazine who shouted curses at everyone, even across our large open-plan office space. She stood Tokyo-subway-rush-hour close to me, her pupils strangely dilated — (heavy anti-psychotic medication? need of same?) — and shouted at me. One day I closed a phone interview with a brief chat, while she shrieked, (and he could hear every word): “I told you never to have personal conversations at work!” I finally asked a co-worker how she put up with it all. Her secret? Anti-depressants.

— The male editor-in-chief of another trade magazine who came into my small, narrow office to verbally hammer me with his disappointment in my work. I told him truthfully, as calmly and politely as possible, I was doing the best I knew how.  He’d hired me into a senior job for which I simply did not have the skills, as my resume made clear. “Define best!” he snarled.

— The male editor who, when I asked him to have lunch to discuss how I was doing in my new job, about six months in, sneered: “I don’t take lunch. When I want to speak to you, I’ll let you know.” (I was then 48.)

I’ve now been self-employed since 2006.

Do you have a boss from hell?

What — if anything — are you doing about it?

Have you ever had [or been] one?

50 thoughts on “70 percent of Americans hate their jobs — how about you?

  1. Nemesis

    “Do you have a boss from hell? What — if anything — are you doing about it?”

    Well… there were 2 actually. But that was a long time ago. No worries, though…

    I eventually succeeded in having them fired.

    [NoteToMsMalled: Next time you find a ‘whistle’ in a cereal box… Keep it. You never know when those things will come in handy. Admittedly – it helps to have an honest, powerful patron and a lot of ‘fan mail’, as it were.]

  2. Wish I’d had your power! In NYC, the nastier and more dysfunctional, the faster and higher they seem to rise.

    I whistle REALLY loud with two fingers. No worries on that account.

    1. In the poll, time off or pay seemed the least of it, surprisingly. I could never function with only 2 weeks off a year. Crazy to work that hard — for what?

      I see this attitude at our post office as well. It really pisses me off since they’re all going to suck up pensions on our dime — as very few of us will be able to.

  3. I did have a senior level fellow come into my cubicle and yell at the top of his lungs that he wanted something done and wanted it NOW. I think he was having a bad day with his affair with a co-worker. I have also been a manager in an insurance company, in charge of hiring and firing for awhile – if I had to fire someone for performance reasons, everyone else gave me the evil eye. Needless to say, I hated that job for many reasons, primarily because I felt I was doing useless, unethical work. I wonder if part of the reason people are disillusioned with their jobs is the measly two weeks vacation they get (probably on average). The workers I find most unhappy with their jobs, at least to us on the other side of the counter , are postal workers.

    1. Rachel

      The Post Office…OMG…When I arrive at 4:55 p.m. (branch closes at 5 pm) I stand in the long line thinking “this is why FedEx is doing so well.” On the other hand, if I _don’t_ wait until 5 minutes before closing time, and if I treat the workers with empathy and courtesy when it’s my turn to be helped, the entire transaction goes a whole lot better. As for the small percentage of times when the postal worker is still distant or grouchy–being kinder is still good practice for my mindfulness skills, character, soul, or Zen. (Take your pick. I prefer “soul” but I’m not trying to convert anybody!)

      And now to undo all of that spiritual development in the interest of so-called humor: Your post reminds me of an experience many years and several states ago, when I went to renew my drivers’ licence in the Dept. of Motor Vehicles. The branch office was a small, narrow, ugly, and dimly lit space; the walls were painted a Dismal Beige; and the employees lurched around joylessly as if they were real-life illustrations of that horrible poster saying “If you don’t believe in the dead coming back to life, just visit our office at quitting time.” What a sad excuse for governmental customer service. I’m usually a strong believer in the benefits of government service, but that time I stood on line seriously considering whether or not to become a devout anarchist!

      Thanks for your blog, Caitlin. When I come here to find intelligent prose I’m never disappointed.

      1. Thanks!

        You are a nicer person than I. I have just about zero tolerance for people who refuse to do their jobs decently…so many people would like to HAVE a job these days.

      2. Rachel, thank you for your comments – I can relate! I am always so polite and friendly to postal workers. I know it is a thankless job. But they seem so beleaguered! Speaking of DMV’s – when we lived in New Mexico we had to go up to Taos to acquire driver’s licenses. I have never been in a colder, ruder place in my life and there were plenty of letters to the editor about that place. Nothing we did in terms of paperwork could satisfy them. Eventually they had to give us the licenses. I do remember being asked to polish the boss’s desk while he was away (I was a secretary and this was in stuffed shirt Ontario in the 70’s). Needless to say it did not get done, not by enlightened twenty-somethings who had read Betty Friedan.

  4. You know my current day job is not what I want to be doing. I took it when Kaz was sick for the benefits and stability. I had been freelancing and temping for several years without health insurance beforehand. As much as I want to transition to a more creative gig (and I will, sooner than later), I have to say, I’ve been blessed with a GREAT boss and pleasant enough work environment. Now I even sit next to a huge window and ovrerlook a courtyard with trees, etc. It has been boring, but also the only steady thing in my rollercoaster-of-a-life these past few years, and I am very grateful. I don’t know where I’d be without it, frankly. That said, I can’t wait to get the hell out of here! 🙂

    I have also had bosses from hell, but must have blocked them from memory. I do remember one guy yelling at me for stapling something horizontally instead of on a diagonal. Ha!

    1. I hear you…

      Stability is under-rated, esp. when we’re trying to do creative/spec work. I’ve stayed in the same affordable 1 bdrm apt since 1989 — and in that time have been married/divorced/re-married/had 4 orthopedic surgeries and more than eight staff jobs…It has been calming to not deal with all the BS of moving, even when I think I can’t bear to move the sofa for the umpteenth time looking for something new!

      Diagonal stapling? WTF?!

      1. I know! It makes me laugh to think about it. I would say it’s typical Hollywood, but I’m sure there are crazies like that in other industries (?).

  5. My crazy boss would come into my cubicle while I was doing an interview – very obviously – demand I drop everything so I could do some personal or sales task for her. Anytime there was a staff meeting it was usually a laundry list of my sins and no one else’s. My co-workers commented on it regularly. Luckily, they liked me. We are still friends and have drinks together every now and again.

    1. Rachel

      Former coworkers can be great friends. I’ve been fortunate to sustain that bond with several people after we stopped being colleagues. Contact is tenuous–we’re all busy–but it’s always good when we reconnect.

      1. Good point. The boss who snarled at me was nuts — and only my fellow editor of another magazine below him helped me stay sane while working for him. Camaraderie and empathy go a long way!

      2. So true. I’m still in touch with people I knew in the 80s, even. One of my newest blog followers (unlikely but true) sat beside me at my very first newspaper job — in 1984. We’re both still journos…

  6. You’re bringing back flashbacks of one of my old jobs (and reminding me of how much I love my current job – despite the substantially lower pay)!

    My boss at a previous job constantly liked to shout at us that we were useless and that she should start getting rid of some “dead weight” around the office. She would also send us office-wide emails stating the same thing. One time I hit “reply all” and told her exactly what I thought of her and her threats and her general management style (if that’s what you want to call it). She was completely shocked. She called me into her office and threatened to fire me, but I knew I was making her too much money to follow through with it. I ended up quitting a few weeks later. She tried convincing me to stay and I laughed.

    Life’s too short to put up with that crap. I’ll take my smaller salary, thank you very much.

    1. Bullies can never quite believe anyone has the balls to stand up to them.

      I quit the medical trade mag job — not only did she scream at everyone, they (yes, really) threw me a birthday party complete with a cake. Huh?! I quit the week afterward and just went freelance.

      When I looked up this woman’s extremely erratic behavior in my friend’s DSM-IV it was spot-on for borderline personality disorder. Scary shit.

      1. …and probably a bit of bi-polar, judging from the screaming fits followed by birthday parties! Glad you got out of that job. It’s not worth it.

  7. Working in education you often feel as though Principals are promoted because the school district doesn’t know what to do with you. Terrible teacher? Make them an asst. Principal. Terrible principal? Oooh. Let’s make them the director of curriculum.

    A wise person once said to me…”Do what you feel you were born to do, that thing you feel you must do or you’ll just die. So when things get really hard you can be assured that you will get through it, because this is what you must do…have to do.”

    I am moving to a new school next year, still in Germany. I just got tired of the undermotivated crazies who couldn’t seem to get over the tragedies in their past teaching careers, and the administrator who didn’t do her job and she had ZERO experience a an admin, no teaching degree, etc. I love my director, but he needs to grow some balls and stand up to his Board. If he ever thinks good teachers will stay, he will need to pay them more and fire the incompetent principal.

    I love my job, I love what I do, its just the adults I work with push me over the edge…as you have read in my blog. Ok, ranting done.

    1. Education strikes me as one of the most bizarre systems out there. I’ve done some teaching — but only at the college or adult level. I know I would enjoy some aspects of working with kids, but everything I’ve ever read about the bureaucracy and idiocy of the surrounding adults seems a little crazy.

      I agree that if you feel a real sense of zeal you’ll put up with whatever shit they throw at you. I’ve had some brutal moments in journalism jobs but I love what I do.

  8. I love my Job. I’m the right person at right place.
    But there are conditions, that makes really stress.
    I’m not full- time. No collegues -at a similar position -have kids, so my female chief. The budget is too low for realising good ideas.Too many collegues are demotivateted.
    My boss is terrible. Full of envy and fear. She never give support to other strong and qualified people. She is free from phantasie. Empathie means what?
    But she thinks, she is the best of all chiefs ever.

    What I’ m doing?
    After a big psychological healthy crash- I had to stop working for 8 months – I’ m still better than ever. Full of motivation, with a clear line for myself. My chief hates me more than before ( in fact she needs an out- time, too).

    The organisation I work for is just into a crisis…..everybody, who is able to think new ways, is asked and needed( not by everyone but by the people, who are able to manage this process).
    This is my chance: I’ m doing qualifikation to get more and different skills, preparing myself for a working-life without this chief. I’ m sure, she will be the leaved behind. Maybe she feels it for a long time.
    In the meantime I’m doing my job in my way, trying not to give too much energy in this person.

    I couldn’t go to work every day, if I would hate it.
    But I’m able to love different jobs, even the bad ones- if the collegues are o.k. Working is a part of my social live. I’ m not dreaming of doing nothing.

    1. Thanks for sharing this…What a mess! It is really toxic to have someone above you who is so determined to make your life miserable.

      I find it really interesting that colleagues/co-workers are the saving grace for so many of us. Looking back on my hellish jobs, I did not have this — the co-workers were too scared or unfriendly. It was all pretty nasty. In my last newspaper job, my desk touched that of three others…it took weeks (!) for them to even say hello to me. Please.

  9. This is so right on the mark. I have had 2 horrible bosses – one who refused to accept my resignation, which I found funny. The other, in advertising days, frequently took credit for campaign work that others had done, especially if the client was particularly pleased.

  10. I did hate the job(s) I had prior to moving to Korea. I always thought it was the job, but then it became oh so clear that I’d hate any job within the corporate confines. Having one year contracts is just better for me. Keeps things fresh, and I really need that to stay motivated.
    We’re also making/saving tons more money than when we were in the grind, hating our jobs. Getting out of our old mindset has really brought nothing but bonuses into our lives. 🙂

  11. Isn’t it striking how many power-trippers and morons with a pathological lack of insight end up in management positions? Are they driven by fear, or by anger? And what does it say about the person/board that gave them the position in the first place?

    The model is wrong. Everywhere. Meek sheep seek peace. Get in touch with the inner wolf and stand your ground – don’t be afraid of the occasional snarl, sometimes it’s all these people understand.

    The greater malaise is that clearly people are without hope if so many of them suffer needlessly in joyless working lives. They lack faith in the possibility of change. How can that be addressed?

    1. I wish I had some lucid answer to your first question. Maybe because the politics and power struggles necessary to gain that position in the first place, and keep it, are enough to weed out their gentle/kind folk? The person who puts them there has their own agenda as well, usually whatever makes their life easier and more lucrative, no?

      I agree entirely. Bullies are quite shocked when you hit (verbally) back. In my last job, I requested a meeting with the very top editor, went in with a two-page list of concerns and then went to the lawyer in HR to tell them I planned to sue. I wasn’t kidding and he knew it. NY workplaces can kill you or make you a lot tougher.

      I have no idea why people put up with so much shit. But I don’t have kids to feed, clothe and educate so I don’t have the financial commitments that so many people do — big mortgage, etc. — they feel they have to keep supporting. I start from the beginning — what is the least amount of $$ I can live on? What is the least amount of work stress I can create for myself? I’m not a lazy person in any respect, but I will no longer tolerate the insanity of how some workplaces operate. So I work hard to create income streams that still allow me my dignity and a lifestyle I enjoy. Some people simply have to go to work in another’s environment — healthcare, education, government, finance. Most jobs, really. Then they are subject to whatever shit gets thrown at them and, in a crappy economy, may not be able to find another job.

      Or, like me, begin to lose faith there IS a job out there without so much BS attached to it every day.

      I think Americans are shockingly docile in the face of this; only 11 % of them are in unions (the lowest since the Depression) and there are almost no laws to make their lives better. For example — under the law, if your boss screams abuse at everyone, it is not illegal. Only if they ONLY scream at you. Huh?! Then, try to prove it.

  12. No surprise there. Whatsoever. I find, however, that if I get good sleep, go to work on mission, have all the fun I can, ignore dysfunction and a few nearly INSANE co-workers and managers, and continue secretly plotting to leave, it’s manageable. LOL. Then too, I believe in karma which sorts it all out.

    1. Wow…that’s a lot of “ifs”, isn’t it?

      I’m not arguing the point. In my last staff job, I had to ignore bullying managers, unfriendly co-workers and a desk so filthy and disgusting that on my first day at work I found dirty, smelly sneakers in my desk drawer, a broken chair and a keyboard encrusted with food.

      I liked the work, the pay, the visibility and the way it taught me to work more efficiently and source my stories more broadly. But I was still physically ill from stress for more than six months.

  13. I’ve had jobs I’ve hated, for the type of work (call centre – eek!) or industry (finance, double eek!) but I’ve mostly been very fortunate when it came to managers. I’ve had several really good ones, and my last boss was the personification of both leadership and humanity, which in that industry, is as rare as pink diamonds. I count myself extremely lucky.

  14. Yes, several of them.
    My actual chief editor has a bad habit to send an revengeful email to every journalist in my newsroom whenever she’s disappointed by on journalist, so we can be humiliated in front of everyone.
    My previous editor used to tell lies all the time and will stab you in the back while speaking about you to your chief editor.
    And I had a paranoid editor who thought everyone was against him in my newsroom.

  15. ianprichard

    Hey Caitlin. As usual, a great post.

    For the most part, I’ve been lucky to have had good bosses – it’s been the middle managers that have always made my working life hell. Like a couple people have alluded to, there’s nothing worse than being in a position where someone can take credit for your work and you’re more or less powerless to do anything about it. The WORST was when I was working at this non-profit in nyc making what barely qualified as a pittance, I was “asked” to stay late on a Friday night to bind these briefing books. I did, alone, skipping some social plans, and then my manager outright lied on Monday, saying how late the two of us stayed, that we got pizza and bonded over the late-night work, as if it was a tale of her devotion to the organization and the cause. Just completely fabricated this story, with me standing right there. Beyond frustrating. People kept telling me, “it’ll work out” or “she’ll get what’s coming to her,” but I’m not convinced the working world is really that fair. It certainly hasn’t elicited the revenge on her that she deserves…

    Then there was the chef-owner at the restaurant in Long Island. Those are two words that should NEVER be conjoined. He drank and LOVED cocaine, and, well, you can imagine what that was like. The kitchen staff referred to his “on” nights as “la rabia blanca” – the white madness.

    Today, my boss and coworkers are all great, luckily.

  16. This post is quite timely for me as I am planning on resigning tomorrow from my place of employment of 10 years. I’ve held various positions at said place, but it is time to part our ways. The best part is I am taking a little time to decide what is next for me….truly liberating.

  17. I’ve had a few great bosses who are grossly outnumbered by the bad. My solution is to work as a contractor. It seems to dilute a lot of the bad bosses’ power and gives me a little peace knowing that I can always move on without leaving a black mark on my resume.
    Some of these people are so difficult to work for that contractors who once worked for them refuse to consider a return contract. Word gets out among the recruiters and eventually gets back to the companies. In one instance the terrible boss was fired because of it.
    Of course, the best therapy is to write about it and try to laugh about it in my blog.

  18. Bednadette

    I ended up decreasing my time to half-time. I work in a medical office. There is so much wrong with medicine; for what it is worth there are so many overhaul changes the docs are going through…couldn’t handle it..trying part time

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