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Don't Worry, Be Happy--At Work

Robin Madell

Everyone wants to be happier at work, and you'll find no shortage of companies with programs designed to improve employee engagement. Then why are so many employees still so unhappy?

Right Management, a subsidiary of the staffing firm ManpowerGroup, released a survey that shows only 19 percent of 411 workers in the United States and Canada were satisfied with their jobs. The majority--nearly two-thirds--expressed that they were not happy at work. Other studies report similar results: A recent joint job happiness survey from Yahoo Finance and PARADE magazine finds that almost 60 percent of 26,000 workers in the United States were so unhappy with their current jobs that they would prefer to choose a new career.

This dissatisfaction is causing a voluntary exodus of employees from a tight job market, where you'd expect the opposite. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that more than 2 million Americans each month are flying the coop--leaving their positions--despite the high unemployment rate. And the number is continuing to increase.

To help get to the bottom of your office malaise, consider these strategies to become happier at work:

Avoid the negative. There's nothing more demoralizing than negative talk at the office. Whether such grousing is fueled by politics or gossip, no good can come of it. Lynne Sarikas, executive director of the MBA Career Center at Northeastern University, suggests steering clear of being sucked in by nattering nabobs. "Some people just have to have something to complain about and will always find a new grievance to air to anyone who will listen," she says. "Don't fuel their fire. Don't have more contact with them than absolutely necessary."

Seek perks. With more companies like Yahoo and Best Buy doing away with previous employee benefits such as flex time, you may feel that worker perks are more difficult to come by. Yet many companies in diverse industries still offer these benefits--you just have to do your research to find them. Working Mother, for example, publishes an annual list of the 100 Best Companies for working moms that contains many clues to flexibility-friendly environments.

A 2012 FlexJobs survey reports that nearly all of the more than 800 respondents (96 percent) believe that having a flexible job would save them time, 93 percent say it would save them money, and nearly 80 percent believe flexibility is healthier. Those are all great reasons to seek employers that offer flexible work arrangements and other perks.

Cathleen Scott, a managing partner and board-certified specialist in labor and employment law at Cathleen Scott & Associates, P.A., says she believes there is a reason why companies that offer additional incentives like flexible, relaxed work environments face fewer employee complaints than companies that don't--their employees are happier.

"Having opportunities to take a lunch break as necessary, bring the dog to work, exercise in the company gym, or look forward to a Friday beer truck--all these things breed happy employees," says Scott. "My advice to employees is to look for companies that offer these perks."

Confront slackers. Joseph Grenny, co-author of the New York Times's bestseller "Crucial Accountability," recently conducted a survey that discovers 93 percent of employees work with someone who doesn't shoulder a fair share of the workload, leading to frustration and discontent. Yet despite this bad behavior, only 10 percent of those surveyed said they hold slackers accountable for their under performance.

Grenny suggests approaching feet-draggers about the situation--but carefully. "Suspend judgments and get curious," advises Grenny. "Perhaps your co-worker is unaware of the effects of his or her actions. Enter the conversation as a curious friend rather than an angry co-worker." He also recommends making the discussion feel safe, not confrontational. "Don't start by diving into the issue. Establish safety by letting your co-worker know you respect him or her and that you share mutual goals."

Examine your drives. In this economic climate where employees are remaining in positions they might have left ages ago, it's difficult to find ways to stay motivated at work. Therefore, Donna M. Lubrano, adjunct faculty at Newbury College's School of Business Management, suggests revisiting what drives you.

Lubrano identifies three common key drivers: a need for achievement, power and affiliation. "Do you like being recognized for a job well done and getting a new plum assignment as a reward?" she asks. "Do you like having more control over your work environment? Do good relationships with co-workers drive your happiness? Evaluate what you have and what areas could be improved upon, and then go after them."

And if that doesn't work ... go solo. Some believe the best way for employees to garner greater happiness at work is by becoming their own boss. Jim Price, adjunct lecturer of entrepreneurial studies at the University of Michigan, argues that entrepreneurs tend to feel better about their career than office workers because if you're doing what you love, it doesn't feel like work.

"If the business is your own, even the drudgery work--and there's never a shortage of that--can be strangely exhilarating," he says. "As an entrepreneur, you always have a sense that what you decide and what you do have a direct impact on the business. What you do every day moves the needle."

Robin Madell has spent two decades as a writer, journalist, and communications consultant on business, leadership, career, and diversity issues. She has interviewed over 200 thought leaders around the globe, and has won 20 awards for editorial excellence. Robin serves as a speechwriter and ghostwriter for CEOs and top executives, with a specialized focus on women in business. She is author of Surviving Your 30s: Americans Talk About Life After 30, which is scheduled for publication in June 2013.

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