Q&A

Stop blaming the pandemic—global unhappiness predates Covid-19, argues Gallup CEO Jon Clifton in his new book

Jon Clifton packed decades of data into his new book to make the case for how great jobs can improve well-being.
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Grant Thomas

4 min read

When Gallup sounded the alarm that unhappiness was rising globally in 2020, its CEO, Jon Clifton, said the news was met without much fanfare. People’s attitudes, he told HR Brew, were basically: Duh, look around—we’re in a pandemic, don’t ya know? Of course we’re unhappy.

“It felt like no one’s listening, because they kept blaming [unhappiness] on the pandemic,” Clifton said.

But unhappiness, Clifton said, has been rising for a decade as the world has collectively become more disenchanted with work, finances, physical health, relationships, and communities.

In his new book, The Blind Spot: The Global Rise of Unhappiness and How Leaders Missed It, Clifton aims to move beyond the strawman explanation for rising unhappiness by digging into how factors including work have driven misery to record highs, creating what he calls “well-being inequality.”

In an interview with HR Brew, he shared how workplace dynamics can either contribute to global misery or help individuals thrive. HR policies, Clifton said, can be the differentiator.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Why should an HR professional read your book out of all the new releases?

One of the biggest problems that’s existed since time immemorial is pain at work, and every single person can help address this. Fixing that would not only fix this global rise of misery, it could also change human productivity. I wish all the CHROs would have gotten together and locked arms and said, “Let’s create thriving workplaces.” Because if we do, honest to God, that will change humanity.

When writing your book, you report Googling “My job is…” and the results were “stressful, making me miserable, boring, and killing me.” What does that tell you about the state of employee engagement?

20% [of workers] are totally miserable, 60% have quietly quit, and another 20% are thriving. In terms of people’s well-being at work: [HR], you’re failing.

You suggest there’s a way we can get people thriving—with “great jobs.” What makes a great job?

The single thing that we asked [that] correlates with stress the most is whether or not you have the materials and things you need to do your job effectively. [Not having that] drives people completely nuts—and understandably.

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We worked with the manufacturing organization, and many of them said they need gloves that fit. That’s not a money issue, because you’re already spending the money on the gloves, but you need [ones] that fit. [Workers] probably don’t feel cared about…because they don’t have gloves that fit doing a job that potentially could harm their hands.

So, I think what makes a great job is [someone] feeling rationally satisfied from pay and benefits and stability in their job. The emotional side is this other piece about development, it’s whether or not they have the opportunity to do what they do best, [and] getting the basic materials that they need in order to do their jobs.

You write that 50% of workers were showing up to work and not knowing what was expected of them, and one-third didn’t have the opportunity to do what they were best at. How can managers and HR rectify that?

It’s amazing how many people just feel totally ignored at work. If anything, if you give negative feedback, people will be in a better emotional state.

Many people are so afraid to give negative feedback, but you think it’s okay?

If you work with somebody on their strengths, then they feel the best. Number two, if you work with them on areas of opportunity, that’s the second one. The worst one, though, is if you don’t say anything to them at all, and they feel totally [invisible.]. So yes, negative is better than totally ignoring them.

Just sitting people down and asking the question, “Do you know what’s expected of you at work?” Let them talk. If they say no, say, “What would make you feel like you [would] fully be able to know that?”

You compiled a lot of data for this book. I don’t want to ask you to pick a favorite child, but what sticks with you the most?

People who are actively disengaged [at work] have slightly higher negative emotions than those who are unemployed. That is one of the most incredible findings.

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Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.