How to Fix Our Biggest Hidden Problem

One of our nation’s most serious problems is hidden in plain sight. The total economic and social cost of this problem is so large it may even rival that of poverty or crime.  Yet discussion of it is virtually absent from the political scene.  It’s as if it didn’t exist.

What is this problem?

Tens of millions of Americans are unhappy at their work – spending the majority their waking lives engaged in jobs that fail to give them the sense of purpose or social recognition so critical to their mental and physical well being.

Many of us assume this can’t be changed.  Work, after all, is work.  Happiness is something we derive from all the other activities in our lives.

But this needn’t be so.  Work can indeed be a source of great happiness for the vast majority of Americans.  We just need to provide the right incentives to employers to make it so.

How do we provide those incentives?

Collect and publish workplace quality scores for all American employers.  Job seekers can then use this data to focus their search.  And employers can use it to improve their management practices, reduce employee turnover, and boost worker productivity.

Fortunately, implementing such a system would not require any new government bureaucracy or burdensome regulations.  In fact, the mechanisms are already in place to collect and report this data with little difficulty and at a cost that would be insignificant when compared to its economic and social benefits.

Here’s how it can be done: Attach to each employee’s IRS Form W-2 a survey that can be returned as part of the tax filing process.  Responses can be tabulated anonymously by IRS computers and published on a website where anyone can review the workplace quality scores for any employer by simply entering the employer’s name and address or tax identification number.

In designing the survey we should not aim to force employers to make employees “happy” by giving more pay or benefits.  That could be economically disastrous, and feed an unhealthy culture of employee entitlement.  Rather we should design the survey to give employers specific, actionable feedback about what they can do at little or no cost to create an environment where workers can do what they do best and be recognized for it.

To that end, I propose basing the survey on research done by the Gallup Organization and subsequently popularized by the management consultants Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman in their 1999 book, First Break All the Rules.  The following list of 13 survey questions is adapted – with some modifications – from their work.  Each question is posed as an affirmative statement to which the employee will provide a response from 0 to 4, representing the degree to which the employee believes the statement to be true.

  1. I know what is expected of me at work.
  2. I receive regular praise and recognition for doing good work.
  3. I understand and believe in the mission of my company.
  4. At work my opinions count.
  5. My co-workers are committed to doing quality work.
  6. I am able to do what I do best and enjoy doing every day.
  7. I have the tools I need to do my job well.
  8. My work provides me opportunities to learn and grow.
  9. My supervisor consults with me regularly about my progress.
  10. I have a best friend or mentor at work.
  11. My supervisor cares about me as a person.
  12. My supervisor encourages my career development.
  13. The stress of my job is at a reasonable level.

Once implemented, what results can we expect from this system?

A powerful new dynamic will be created in the market for employee labor.  Job seekers will target companies that have high workplace quality scores.  Employees at companies with low scores will demand changes or seek employment elsewhere.  Millions of employers will respond to these pressures by taking aggressive action to train their managers to better develop and recognize employees.  And managers that fail in these duties will be fired or assigned to non-supervisory roles.

Employers that succeed in improving workplace quality will gain a substantial competitive advantage by attracting and retaining the best employees, by more fully utilizing worker talents, and by being able to pay lower salaries than competitors with low workplace quality scores.

All this will have a vast, positive effect on the American economy, as billions will be added to gross domestic product through increased worker productivity, and billions will be saved in stress-related medical and lost workday costs.

But perhaps the greatest benefit will be that tens of millions of Americans will find greater purpose and happiness in their lives by doing work that better suits their talents and by having that work facilitated and recognized by their employers.

If you like this proposal, please help promote it by sharing it with your friends using the buttons below. Or if you really, really like it, please also send a link to it to the White House and your representatives in Congress by using the email links in the sidebar at right.
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