The unhappiest jobs are also some of the loneliest, according to an 85-year study from Harvard researchers.
While particular roles can’t be reliably correlated with dissatisfaction and burnout, certain job characteristics can be, Robert Waldinger, MD, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the longest-running studies on happiness, tells CNBC Make It.
Jobs that require little human interaction and don’t offer opportunities to build meaningful relationships with co-workers tend to have the most miserable employees, the study found.
Since 1938, Harvard researchers have gathered health records from more than 700 participants from all over the world and asked them detailed questions about their lives every two years.
The secret to living a happier, healthier and longer life, they concluded, isn’t money, professional success, exercise or a healthy diet — positive relationships are what keep people happy throughout their lives.
This applies to our jobs, too. “It’s a critical social need that should be met in all aspects of our lives,” Waldinger explains. “Plus, if you are more connected to people, you feel more satisfied with your job, and do better work.”
Workplace loneliness is more common than you think
Some of the most isolating jobs involve more independent work than interpersonal relationships or require overnight shifts, such as truck driving and night security.
Lonely jobs are common in emergent, tech-driven industries including package and food delivery services, where people often have no co-workers at all, or online retail, where the work is “so fast and furious” that employees on the same warehouse shift might not even know each other’s names, Waldinger says.
However, loneliness doesn’t just afflict those in solitary jobs — even people with busy, social jobs can feel isolated if they don’t have positive, meaningful interactions with others.
Waldinger points to customer service jobs as a prime example of this: “We know that people in call centers are often enormously stressed by their jobs, mainly because they are on the phone all day with frustrated, impatient people,” he says.
Feeling disconnected from others at work is also a health concern: Recent studies have shown that, as we get older, loneliness can increase our risk of death as much as smoking, obesity and physical inactivity.
Socializing is good for your career — and your mental health
Creating small opportunities for social connection at work can be restorative and help alleviate feelings of loneliness and dissatisfaction, the researchers found.
For example, you can have a five-minute catch-up with a friendly co-worker or find people with similar interests, like a book club or intramural sports league, that you can spend time with after a stressful shift.
Maximizing your happiness at work also depends on the expectations your manager has. “If you’re incentivized to work in teams, it’s easier to build positive relationships with your co-workers,” Waldinger says. “But if you’re expected to be head-down with work by yourself all the time, or compete with others, that’s a different story.”
If employees are chatting or laughing together at the office, some managers will assume that “they’re not working and their productivity is probably suffering,” Waldinger and his colleague Marc Schulz, PhD, the associate director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, write in their book “The Good Life.”
In fact, the opposite is true: A 2022 report from Gallup shows that people who have a best friend at work are more productive and engaged with their work than those who don’t.
When we are searching for jobs, we consider compensation and health insurance as important benefits, but Waldinger and Schulz argue that work relationships are another “work benefit” we should pay closer attention to.
“Positive relationships at work lead to lower stress levels, healthier workers, and fewer days when we come home upset,” Waldinger and Schulz conclude. “They also, simply, make us happier.”
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