What's Really Behind Unhappiness at Work

10/08/2018 By Kadie Yale

Design Connections Mindfulness TalkToday, a majority of employees in America are unhappy in their work. As interior design works towards implementing health and wellness into projects, how can employers ensure they’re putting their money where their mouth is?

According to experts, any creeping unhappiness may not be because it’s morning, or it’s Monday, or it’s any of the other reasons we give when we realize we’re not living up to our optimal levels of happiness.

During her Design Connections 2018 CEU talk on mindfulness, Catherine Minervini (pictured - courtesy of Gina Wickers Instagram @ginabwicker), A&D regional manager, Sunbrella, said that designers rank number 32 in work happiness. That’s after police, architects, and even soldiers.

Designers aren’t alone in this, however. The Conference Board reported in 2018 that 53 percent of Americans are unhappy at work.

This number echoes the statistic that nearly 50 percent of paid vacation days were forfeited in 2017; nearly 10 percent of employees didn’t take vacation at all.

The reasons are valid: in the current age, Americans are less likely to break away from work. Of those surveyed by Glassdoor, fear of falling behind in work is the number one reason for forfeited vacation days.

This is important for designers to recognize, particularly as the industry deals with an influx of young designers leaving the profession after 5 years.

As design becomes more involved in the discussion on creating spaces that encourage health and wellness, particularly in the workplace, it’s important to take a moment to consider the ways in which interior designers need to take their own happiness into consideration

Employees are Working Around the Clock

During dinner at the conference, I sat with a group of attendees as we discussed the day’s presentations.

The overall theme of the night had focused on the part designers and manufacturers play in creating a healthier, happier world. In particular, the statement by Randy Fiser, CEO, American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), that part of their wellness-focus in the new ASID office includes discouraging employees from eating at their desks during lunch. This, it seems, hit a note with the attendees sitting around our table.

Katie Herber, sustainability specialist, Perkins Eastman, and Faith Marabella, CEO, Wellesley Design Consultants, Inc., pointed out that often taking a break in the middle of the day means they’ll be working late into the evening since there’s always more work to do.

This isn’t just the truth for designers. Throughout America, employees are having a difficult time finding a good work-life balance. Previously, work, for the most part, had to stay at the office since our technology needed to do the job was desk-bound. Ironically, today’s technologies that make work easier are also the technologies that makes work possible 24/7.

And in a competitive market, those that get more done quickly often get the jobs, regardless of whether the studies exist to support the basis that a healthier work-life balance creates happier employees, increasing overall productivity and decreasing turn over.

Transparency Needs to Include Trust and Appreciation

In combatting unhappiness in the workplace, oftentimes it comes down to communication and understanding.

Studies show that 79 percent of people quit their jobs due to ‘lack of appreciation.’ This goes against the general misunderstanding that people leave due to income.

Leigh Branham, author of The 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave, found that 89 percent of bosses believe employees quit because they want more money. In actuality, only 12 percent of employees cite income as the reason for quitting.

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During the Design Connections panel “The Building Industry’s New Frontier in Transparency: Social Justice”, Dee Dee Bonds, director of design, Earl Architects, brought a comment to the panel participants: having transparency in the workplace really only works if employees trust that what they say and their opinions won’t be held against them.

A Harvard Business Review survey revealed that 58 percent of employees say they trust total strangers than their own boss.

Office trust is at an all-time low. In part, this has to do with pressure on employees to get the job done without showing they’re overwhelmed by the amount they have on their plates, and the misunderstanding by managers relating to how much they are giving their employees.

Making the Belly of the Beast Known

This lack of transparency doesn’t just iimpact the employer-employee relationship, however. During our discussion, Marabella pointed out that a misunderstanding in what goes into the job can lead clients and the general population to have incorrect impressions of what goes into interior design.

“One of the things that I think contributes to happiness is that people don’t know what [interior designers] do,” she said.

In her experience as both a licensed architect and having worked in the interior design sector, she came to understand that many of the conceptions she had about interior designers while working as an architect were incorrect. When she saw what went into interior design, she gained a new appreciation for the work that goes into a project.

[Read also: Designing for Wellness in the Workplace]

Indeed, this is an issue that is plaguing interior design: both ASID and IIDA are currently fighting to raise the status of interior designers on a state and federal level so that the profession is seen as important as the work architects do. (Interestingly, the study Minervini quoted puts the happiness of architects in the top 5 of professions.)

In general, awareness, understanding and appreciation for the work interior designers do can raise the bar on happiness in the workplace, particularly for young designers.

Leaders May Eat Last—But They Eat

Going back to the discussion regarding the importance of employees leaving their desks during lunch: one of the most eye-opening conversations I’ve had in the industry happened during my first few months as interiors+sources content director. While visiting a well-known, international multidisciplinary firm, the president stated that despite all of the wellness-focused changes made to their offices, including providing free yoga, healthy meals and snacks, and sit-stand desks, they were finding their employees weren’t utilizing the new amenities.

This echoes national studies. In 2018, Career Builder released a study that said two of every five workers have gained weight at their current job. Of those surveyed, over a quarter of employees had access to employer-sponsored wellness benefits, but a shocking 63 percent didn’t take advantage of them.

In our discussion, the president said they found his own lack of involvement in these programs led to his employees fearing being seen as slacking off if they partook.

As the design industry implements more wellness-focused programs into their own office place, it’s important that employees see their managers making time for their own health. Even if it’s true that leaders eat last, “monkey see, monkey do” rings even louder.

Attracting and retaining employees means not only understanding and appreciating what one’s workers do, but how management leads by example.

Creating a healthy and productive workspace needs to be more than lip service or an ideal: interior design needs to start investing in more mindful practices within the industry.

Read next: Designing for the Multi-Generational Workplace