Why Do So Many People Hate Their Job? Understanding workplace nightmares

Why does work humor—particularly that which revolves around devilish bosses, incompetent coworkers, or fantasies about the building burning to the ground as you pull into the lot—strike such a resonant chord among so many people?

I asked myself that question recently while sifting through an unending selection of Pinterest memes about work. No, it doesn’t pertain to my current job, but yes, it’s still funny because, yes, I’ve been there before and I can still relate. 

First, laughing about the misery of our situations is relieving. It somehow allows us to lighten the oppressive weight of an otherwise crushing situation, and to really feel that someone else, somewhere, relates to us. Even if it is a sad frog reaching for an electrical outlet with a fork, laughter really is medicine. 

This kind of thing is funny because it’s relatable and, unfortunately, true. It’s the same reason why every working adult male or female between the ages of 25-50 knows the lines from Office Space by heart. Or why The Office has been a huge hit. 

We know what it’s like to have 27 bosses, the inaneness of having to fill out a TPS report, and what it’s like to be called in on a Saturday by a manager we’d rather see on fire than at work. Most of us know what it’s like to work for Michael Scott.  

And another thing: Why are so many people miserable at work?

I’ve had the not-so-distinct privilege of experiencing life from both sides of the aisle, as both employee and supervisor. As a manager, I’ve had my share of real gems, but I’ve also found that it’s relatively easy to deal with problem employees. You either help them straighten up and fly right or you help them see the door. But it’s a different kind of hell when your boss, over whom you have no authority, has a tail and carries a pitchfork. 

“people don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses.” 

The reality is, most people who voluntarily quit their job do so because of their boss. As a 2008 Gallup pole indicated, 75 percent of people who left their jobs did so because of their boss, not the position. Roughly 83 percent of those folks left for different companies. As Gallup reported, “People don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses.” 

As a result, the manager is the single most important factor in determining the success of any business or operation. He or she is the tone setter, the environment creator, the thermostat of a company’s internal climate. 

Personal experience for most of us bears this out to a T. In at least three of my adult jobs I left almost solely because of the supervisor(s) and the climate they created. I’d probably still be in those jobs if it wasn’t for the penchant these folks had for making life miserable. 

I’m convinced of at least a few common traits of a bad work situation and/or a bad boss. Here are a few of them: 

First, the manager creates a toxic work environment.
They’re usually manipulative bullies who rely on threats rather than rewards, and they could care less about your personal growth. Because they are generally weak leaders, they threaten your employment or aspects of it on a regular basis, this being the only way they know how to motivate. But this kind of motivation generally lasts only long enough for a worker to find alternate employment. Only weak employees will endure such hostility. 

Into this category goes the CC’ing game, by which your employer insults or criticizes a subordinate with everybody in the department copied on an email, and the litany of negative comments regarding her work. Or there’s the group chat board informing everyone in the company they can have your job if they catch the mistake in a recent report you completed. Of course without ever mentioning it to you. On and on goes the horror stories of psychotic employers.

Second, a boss doesn’t respect personal time. 
That’s right, the string of messages at 11 p.m. on a Saturday demanding an employee’s immediate attention doesn’t make anyone want to work for you. In an absolute emergency, maybe. On a regular basis? Definitely not.

Despite what some employers think, a job is a job—it isn’t a person’s entire life, and it shouldn’t be. It’s fine to expect high standards in the workplace, but it’s also incredibly wise to insist on unobstructed personal time for your employees to rest and come back refreshed. The best bosses I’ve ever had were equally as demanding that I took time off as I gave it my all when working. 

Third, employees are not treated like humans. 
I’m convinced that one of the biggest problems in corporate, industrialized America is the tendency to think of people in mechanistic rather than biological terms. Unlike machines, humans need strange things like sunshine, fresh air, and bodily movement.

And yet how many workplaces are cubicled sweatshops with artificial light that prohibit employees from doing anything other than smoking, because that’s healthy, right? Paranoid employers monitor bathroom breaks, eye computer monitors from around corners, and prohibit anything that might resemble enjoyment. And then they wonder why people would rather stick a fork in an electrical outlet than work there.  

Fourth, bosses carry unrealistic expectations.
I had an employer who once told me, “I don’t care if you’re on vacation or it’s the weekend. This is a team, so there’s never really a time when you’re not on the clock.”

Interesting theory there, Copernicus. 

I chuckle when I think about the owners of companies who make well into the six figures and expect their employees to be just as invested as they are—which typically isn’t healthy, anyway—while making meager wages that fall well below industry standards. Masquerading as capitalists who realize the power of incentive and reward, they’re actually Marxist tyrants who expect always increasing levels of work for the same pay. 

The mantra of our day is “more bricks, less straw,” which has always been the mantra of evil dictators, dating back at least to the Pharaoh of the Exodus. Yes, you could ask one employee to do five different jobs, and sure, it looks like in the short term you’re “saving money,” but the problem is you’re creating burnout. It’s a mindset that views people like disposable cell phones—use, abuse, toss, get another, repeat. 

In this type of environment, the obvious result is that employees are regularly underpaid and overworked. Who cares if they get burned out and leave? We’ll just hire another desperate college grad to fill their shoes. 

Fifth, the work actually just sucks.
This might be one of the most overlooked, and yet obvious, factors. Call center phone jockeys hate their jobs because those jobs are more or less devoid of anything meaningful about their labor. It’s almost 100 percent about exploiting and taking advantage of the sucker who’s born every second and needs cable television.

Call me crazy, but maybe people hate their jobs because so much of the work out there is quite essentially awful, meaningless, soul destroying work. That’s why customer service call center workers last about six months to a year, if that. Nobody can take that kind of abuse for very long.

The ultimate key to finding the right job for you is to discover your strengths and a position that allows you to utilize those gifts. It means one of the most important factors in a job is enjoying what you do, not what you make or how that career ranks in the hierarchy of American social status. It means the work has meaning for you and is an actual, viable, useful service to others. 

And, of course, it means that who you work for will make all the difference in terms of your longevity. So choose wisely. 

Got any horror stories from the workplace? Share them in the comment section below (unless you worked for me and that was a horror story of its own, ha). 

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  • I worked in employee engagement for a decade and this is the most spot on explanation I’ve ever read. I’ve seen many “managers” say that people don’t quit their bosses but their pay, etc. They seem to forget they set pay scale, create environments, and make decisions on development.

    Kudos for nailing their embracing of capitalism while holding a Marxist attitude towards employees.

    Gotta run. Going to carve this into a stone tablet and plant it in a few Ex bosses yards.

    • Tom, thanks for the feedback!

      The tendency of many managers to say they don’t have control over a workplace environment reminds me of the line in “Cool Hand Luke,” after the guard throws Luke in confinement and says, “Sorry, Luke, I’m just doing my job.” Luke replies, “Nah, boss, sayin’ it’s your job don’t make it right.”

  • Eric, thanks for a great article. I just quit a job as a school bus driver. I’ve never quit anything before, and always when I’ve changed jobs in the past, I’ve never burned my bridges. Until last Friday. No self-respecting grown man will allow himself to be abused by kids, and then by a supervisor who won’t back him up. And no, I did not lay hands on the unruly brat, though I was sorely tempted to remove my belt.. but I did tell her in no uncertain terms, that she would need alternative transportation in order to get home that day. A decision that my supervisor reversed.. something about me not giving adequate chances and endless written warnings.. blah, blah, blah. I gave him the bus keys and walked out.

    Anyway.. for me, it always comes down to working conditions. I don’t chase money; except as a reflection of my worth and contribution to a particular enterprise. But, I must be respected; and given enough control to do the job well. That did not happen this time. Hoping to find a better fit soon.. but just thought I’d unload that.. and also give kudos when they’re due. Good job.

    • Thanks for commenting, Randall. It’s not easy having a spine and walking away, but sometimes that’s what you have to do. In the end, you walk away with your integrity, which it turns out is one of the best things you can have. That does sound like an incredibly frustrating situation. I hope and trust you’ve found, or are finding your way, to something better. As the Shinedown song lyric goes, “Sometimes goodbye is a second chance.”

      I appreciate your kind words and wish you the best.


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