Once again the world of work and in particular the world of workplace journalism has thrown up a massive contradiction.  HR Review in its article Happiness levels in the workplace have increased  state that according to a recent report from the Government, the general level of satisfaction in the UK’s workplaces has significantly increased despite the economic downturn.

The extensive study of more than 21,000 employees found that job satisfaction levels rose in 2012 with 20% of respondents either ‘satisfied’ or ‘very satisfied’ with all aspects of their job, in comparison to 16% when the survey was last produced in 2004.

Yet two weeks before, Yves Duhaldeborde, Director of Organisations Surveys and Insights at Towers Watson, the global professional services firm, posted a blog titled The UK’s workforce faces burn out if employers don’t act soon painting a very different picture.  He said that “employees feel that they have no choice but to stick it out where they are and put up with what their boss throws at them because, at the end of the day it could be worse and they don’t want to have their head on the block if the redundancy axe starts swinging”.  Their latest Global Workforce Study, which surveyed 32,000 employees worldwide, reveals that more than one in three UK employees (34 per cent) say they are often affected by excessive pressure in their job. Over half (58 per cent) said that they have been working more hours than normal over the last three years and half expect this to continue for the next three years. 

I smell a rat – either that or the danger of too many RSS feeds and an unhealthy dose of scepticism.  The Government would obviously like us to believe that everything in the garden is getting bit rosier despite the threat of a triple dip recession.  In fact as an aside, a triple dip is no surprise to me whatsoever. I have been saying since the financial crash of 2008 that the economics of the world are such a mess and the eurozone debt so large that we would bump along the bottom for years.  If that means a triple, quadruple or even quintuple dip, then so be it.  Our GDP is not going to significantly grow or shrink for some time yet so we should just get on with life and stop over-politicising less than ½ a percent.

On the contrary, Mr Duhaldeborde works with a number of large companies developing strategies for sustainable employee engagement, productivity and wellbeing. He could therefore be rather keen for employees to be a bit miserable and stressed so he can charge his clients large amounts to help cheer them up.

So what is the real picture like? Well, as a regular Occupational Heath Adviser to organisations totalling about 10,000 employees and an occasional auditor and provider to many more, my experience is this:

1)    It depends where you work.  There are some great businesses out there in some growing markets and if you’re in the right place, life is pretty good – busy and no easy ride – but good none the less.

2)    Personal debt is still considerable and causes great anxiety which affects work. I know there is an element of contradiction here as you would have thought that debts would make individuals work harder to stay in a job and earn to pay them off but often the worry is too much and absence results.

3)    Uncertainty is generally high. Even if the business you work for has a clear and sustainable future, your role within it could be changing all the time as priorities and markets fluctuate.

4)    Everything is faster.  The rise of the mobile phone made us contactable, wherever we were with that expectation to react: to answer the call, whatever we were doing.  The rise of the smart phone means that the full capability of our office, desk, pod or workstation is in our pocket or handbag all the time. Not only are you meant to answer the call, but answer the email, text, tweet, press release or blog in just the same way you would were you sitting at your desk – if you have one.  Some thrive on this, yet others are overwhelmed by it.

5)    Mental ill health will continue to be high for some time yet.  The pace, uncertainty and level of change are hard for many who are not coping well with the current decade.

6)    Expectations are lowering. Most now realise that times ahead will not contain the heady optimism and lucrative earnings of previous years. Holidays, Christmases, cars and mortgages will all be harder to afford.

7)    Flexibility, knowledge, great customer service and the willingness for some good old fashioned hard work are still key to staying alive in the job market.

8)    Maximising the gross of your employees is crucial.  In the current job market, employers have control and the pick of who they want. But to be the best, they still need to attract the best, keep them and look after them.  Health benefits are still relevant and good health at work and absence management are as important as they ever were.  One ingredient of success never changes: hire good people, pay them well, look after them and trust them to do their job.

My views are not research based, but as the above pieces of research clearly indicate, that’s often of no help at all as too much of it is polarised in its results and says potentially what the researchers want it to say. What wasn’t pointed out in either of the above articles is how dissatisfied the other 80% were in the Government survey and how happy the 66% were in the Towers Watson survey. So let’s be realistic.  It’s tough out there for many, but for many others, little has changed and for some it’s pretty damn good. It depends on your point of view, where you are and where you choose to be. You decide.