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U.S. Workers Stumble in Pursuit of Happiness

A poll released last month by The Conference Board drew nationwide attention by reporting that less than half (45 percent) of U.S. workers surveyed were happy in their jobs -- the lowest level in more than 20 years.

That's quite a decline from the more than 60 percent who were happy in their jobs 22 years ago when the survey was first taken.

Workers in all age and income brackets told The Conference Board they were increasingly dissatisfied with everything from the type of work they are doing to the quality of their bosses. More than one in five didn't even expect to be in the same job a year from now.

Pundits have been having a field day commenting on this research.

The easy analysis is the recession created a climate of fear among workers who don't want to end up in the unemployment line, and has given companies more leverage to press workers for longer hours, worse working conditions and lower pay and benefits. We know corporations' productivity gains skyrocketed the past year mostly due to employee layoffs. Even Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams weighed in: "When the economy was good, everybody was happier, no matter what their job was. The fact that you can't change jobs in this economy makes you think your current job is worse."

However, it can't all be attributed to the recession because The Conference Board's job satisfaction numbers have declined steadily through both good and bad economies for the past two decades.

I think the drop has more to do with a steady and growing feeling of apprehension in America over a wide variety of things. Some, such as global warming, are media exaggerations, fanned by hyperventilated alarmists, but other threats are very real, including terrorism, government budget deficits, the housing market crash, the fickle stock market, onerous personal debt, war in the Middle East, nuclear proliferation, personal bankruptcies, loss of retirement nest eggs as well as skyrocketing unemployment. Taken together, it's not hard to see why Americans have a hard time feeling "happy" about their jobs, or any other aspect of their lives.

Of course, many retailers in our industry do a great job of making their workplace satisfying for their associates. QuikTrip and Valero annually make Fortune magazine's list of Best Places to Work. Several convenience store retailers also have stellar reputations for employee relations, such as Wawa, Nice N Easy and Kwik Trip, among others. And, of course, these companies benefit from over-industry-average productivity, lower turnover and better customer service.

I disagree vehemently with the experts who look at this research and blame the workers, though. One prominent grocery industry blogger wrote he was impatient about "these folks who are complaining about not being happy at work. At least you have jobs!!" (His italics and exclamation points.) Blaming this situation on the workers is just plain wrong, unless perhaps those workers took out subprime mortgages that they knew they couldn't pay back.

However, if you are feeling down about your job, perhaps the best thing to do is stop worrying about things over which you have no control. Stop reading about the layoffs, rising taxes, political bailouts and free up your energy for things you can control. Invest that energy in providing better customer service, thinking of new ways to do things better and add value to your company, be more of a self-starter and tackle problems at work even before you've been asked to, be nicer to everyone around you, don't sweat the small things, and work on making meaningful relationships with your colleagues, bosses and customers.

These are just a few things workers can do to find more security in these tumultuous times.
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