When was the last time you really had a lot fun at work? If you can´t quite remember, you AND your employer might be in big trouble.“What kills your joy at work?” I asked some 900 people, most of them middle managers of German companies, for a survey in August 2019. I wanted to better understand which factors out of a list of 30 known stressors at work bother workers to a greater extent. Moreover, I calculated which of these unwanted working conditions are connected to relevant Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), such as unwillingness to recommend one´s employer to other people or the current prevalence of turnover intentions.
Not Enough Resources and Career Opportunities
Across the entire sample, participants complained first and foremost about a lack of resources (budget, staff) in light of their current tasks and responsibilities. This is quite understandable keeping in mind most of the participants work in challenging business-minded environments. For-profit organizations are supposed to run their business to the highest degree of efficiency. Notwithstanding, senior managers should bear in mind excessive austerity can harm an organization´s culture in the long run, sparking feelings of resentment between coworkers or entire departments.
Next, participants complain about a lack of attractive career opportunities within their organizations. Keeping in mind the sample, this makes a lot of sense: A considerable fraction of the sample is in their mid-thirties. Accordingly, they are still in their career-building phase. The perceived lack of opportunities could be an accurate evaluation of their current situation. Most large German companies aren’t growing strongly at this point in time, a circumstance that is known to slow down career progression for aspiring leaders. Yet, my personal experience as a senior human resources leader also tells me this finding might be explained by these aspiring leaders lacking accurate information. Especially in large, diversified corporations, in the absence of a unified career information system such as an internal job board, many theoretically available career options might stay hidden from potential internal applicants.
A Well-known Pain Point: Leadership Quality
I found that stressors ranked three to five can be attributed to the behavior of respondents´ direct supervisors. Many participants report that they lack trust in their organizations´ top management. Yet, most members of an organization are not directly exposed to top management on a regular basis. Therefore, top managers´ image is first and foremost constructed via exposure to internal media, and maybe even more via word of mouth. The image of top managers in the minds of most staff members is by and large shaped by what mid-level supervisors think and say about them.Next we find two old acquaintances, factors well-known for decades, but obviously hard to ameliorate: A sizable part of the sample complains about a lack of relevant feedback. Somewhat of a surprise was that respondents miss constructive criticism providing opportunities for learning even more than praise and recognition. This holds especially true for the female participants in my sample. People need their strokes (using a wording from transactional analysis), but they also want to be challenged, and they want to grow their knowledge and their competence.
Not until the sixth spot did I find some concerns about money. Some people are regularly bothered by a (perceived) lack of an adequate salary, and even less so, some are worried about their prospects for salary development.
It´s Annoying, But Is It Relevant?
The fact that a stressor is perceived to occur frequently does not necessarily imply that it is also severe in its qualitative consequences. It is perfectly possible for a source of stress to occur on a regular basis and precisely because of its normality, most workers psychologically devalue its significance because they have accepted it as a given or because they have learned to cope over time. By way of example, over the course of several years, most managers in large organizations learn to create decent results even with scarce resources. In my former job as VP at Bertelsmann, we called this “working with magic money.” Managers often found ways to get things done without relying on formal budgets.
On the other hand, there might be stressors that do not occur on a regular basis, but when they do, they have severe consequences for an employee´s motivation, engagement, and subsequent behavior. To shed more light on these assumed connections, I assessed the importance of the 30 stressors as measured in my study for several critical outcomes by means of linear regression analysis, in particular participants willingness to recommend their jobs, their supervisors, and their employer as a whole to a good friend or relative. An additional outcome was respondents´ current turnover intentions.
Life Is (Not) a Walk in the Park
At this point, a stressor became salient that made an unimpressive rank number 18 in absolute terms: fun, or, more precisely: a lack of fun, A regression analysis suggests that a perceived lack of fun is the second-most important driver of turnover intentions, after number 1, lack of career opportunities. Moreover, the fun factor is the:
- most important driver of participants´ willingness to recommend their job
- second-most important driver of participants´ willingness to recommend their employer
- third-most important driver of participants´ willingness to recommend their supervisor
To sum up: When people do not perceive their jobs to deliver fun on regular basis, they are probably going to jump ship soon. Now, it´s clear that a job can´t be fun all the time. It´s called work, after all. But my data suggests that top managers and human resources professionals should not take this seemingly light factor too lightly.
What Drives Fun at Work?
Given that having fun at work is such a serious matter – an interesting follow-up question is: What are the drivers of perceived fun at work? In order to clarify this, I ran another linear regression; this time, using (lack of) fun as the target variable. These are the three most important drivers of fun at work:
- strength orientation
- meaning in work
- working atmosphere among colleagues
The last-mentioned point is self-explanatory: When someone is regularly irritated by their coworkers or simply isn’t able to connect, fun will go overboard. Interestingly enough, an in-depth analysis shows that this factor is also attributed to the leadership quality of participants´ supervisors. Looking at the second factor, there´s an intriguing finding: The perception of (a lack of) meaning and (a lack of) fun at work seem to be deeply intertwined. Experiences that are meaningful also carry a lot of fun, and vice-versa. This is interesting because these two dimensions (called hedonic and eudaimonic well-being in the research literature) are often depicted as being separate entities, whereas, in fact, they are probably connected on a deeper level.
Yet, in my analysis, the most important driver of workplace fun is an environment that caters to peoples´ strengths. When employees get to work on tasks that play to their strengths for the greater part of the day, they will also get more fun out of their jobs. Managers who aim to create a working environment that enhances followers´ experience of fun (and hence, meaning), need to really, really get to know their people. They have to understand what makes them tick in order to help them to develop their authentic (and fun-loving) working selves.
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