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Why are workers so sad? These researchers offer clues—and recommendations

A growing cohort of experts are ringing alarm bells about the loneliness epidemic and why workplace stress is at an all-time high.

Why are workers so sad? These researchers offer clues—and recommendations
[Source photo: Carol Yepes/Getty Images]

Not to be a downer, but workers are historically unhappy.

This is especially true among young workers in the United States. Over the past year, the U.S. fell from 15th to 23rd on the annual World Happiness Report’s ranking. And Americans under the age of 30 ranked even lower, at 62nd place. A recent Glassdoor report found that confidence among entry-level employees has dropped to the lowest levels ever recorded.

But workers around the world are showing signs of unhappiness, too. Gallup’s 2023 workforce report, which polled more than 2 million workers from 160-plus countries, found that workplace stress is at an all-time high, with 44% of workers experiencing high levels of stress daily and 21% experiencing anger.

Now a growing group of academics, self-help evangelists, and well-being benefits providers are attempting to call attention to a worker well-being crisis and its potential causes. The questions that remain are what, exactly, would make workers happier—and what can be done to make employers care?


Richard Layard, codirector of the community well-being program at the Center for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics and Political Science is one of a few modern economists to study happiness.

During a recent panel with U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy at the World Happiness Summit,* Layard traced the current well-being movement back to the Age of Enlightenment, calling it “depressing” that 300 years later “well-being is still not at the center of policy debate [in the way] that economic growth is.” The concept “that you should live to maximize the happiness of people around you, it is such a profound idea,” he said. “We could transform our society.”

Layard cites his research, along with studies by George Ward, an economics research fellow at Oxford University, and Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, a professor of economics and behavioral science at Oxford’s Saïd Business School, which demonstrates the impact of worker well-being on individual- and firm-level performance.

While more conservative economists prioritize quantifiable measures like income, rather than subjective emotions like happiness, Layard says “we should be measuring the benefit of a policy not by its effect on income, but by its overall effect on well-being.” The professor cheekily rejects the idea that studying wellness is not a hard science. “We are the hard-headed ones and they are the softies,” he argues.

Skeptics may call Layard’s suggestions optimistic, but the well-being movement has received endorsement by Murthy, who during the pandemic became one of the most prominent voices on the issue of worker well-being. “There has been this notion that these hard indicators like jobs, wages, etc., are the sole determinant of happiness and fulfillment,” Murthy said. “And it’s not that those things don’t matter. They matter a lot. But I do think that well-being is increasingly important.”


As surgeon general, Murthy has spent considerable time raising the alarm on what he and others describe as the “loneliness epidemic.” He says research indicates that loneliness doesn’t just have negative mental health impacts, but also has an impact on one’s physical health, including an increase in the risk of stroke and in developing dementia.

According to recent report from TheLi.st, Berlin Cameron, and Benenson Strategy Group, nearly 80% of white-collar employees say they feel lonely because of their job, 43% of say the loneliest time of their day is “being at work,” and 75% think that employers have a responsibility to address loneliness in the workplace.

This loneliness may be caused by a lack of communal meaning at work, argues Ann Shoket, CEO of TheLi.st, a self-help community of business leaders. “There’s a worker loneliness crisis that we’re facing because the workplace is not set up to meet the needs that workers have now,” she says. “People want their careers to mean more.”


Murthy also suggests that social media may be contributing to worker unhappiness and loneliness by negatively impacting self-esteem and reducing the amount of time that people spend together in person. He points to research which found that from 2003 to 2020, the amount of time that people spent with others decreased by 70%.

What are they doing instead? Staring at various screens—both at work and at home.

Amy Blankson, cofounder of the Digital Wellness Institute,* estimates that adults today receive an average of 237 notifications per day, across platforms like Instagram and Slack, and says that workers’ screen time has increased 30% since 2020. She argues that this increase in screen time, for both professional and personal purposes, is hurting workers’ well-being.

“We haven’t seen that level of change in the workplace since the Industrial Revolution when assembly lines drove us into cities, and we had urbanization, and it gave rise to labor laws,” said Blankson onstage at the World Happiness Summit.

It’s not just the additional time spent staring at our phones and laptops, says Brad Smith, chief science officer at workforce well-being software company meQuilibrium. It’s “what’s implied by the screen time as well,” he says, pointing to the increase in surveillance technology in many frontline and office jobs, which can seriously impact worker well-being.

Data shows that this stress is especially acute for frontline employees, such as delivery drivers and warehouse workers. Smith’s team recently polled these workers and found that they reported anxiety and depression rates that were 33% and 61% higher, respectively, than those of non-frontline workers.

He says these heightened levels of stress can be attributed to the demanding nature of frontline jobs; because many of these employees lack both autonomy and support from leaders; and because many feel constantly monitored. What’s more, when facing high stress, frontline workers are 30% less likely to seek out professional assistance, including through an employer-provided wellness or mental health benefit, compared to their non-frontline counterparts.


More broadly, rising mental health challenges are impacting worker sentiment. Recent data from ComPsych, an ​​employee mental health services provider, suggests that from 2017 to 2023, mental health-related leaves of absence among workers increased 300%. Though this rise is likely due in part to it becoming more socially acceptable to take time off for mental health reasons, experts say workers’ mental health is worsening overall.

Richard Chaifetz, founder and CEO of ComPsych, suggests that broad macroeconomic, social, and geopolitical issues—including the ongoing conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine, increasingly volatile economic and political climates, and the rise of artificial intelligence—are to blame. “To many, it feels like the world is imploding around us,” says Chaifetz over email. “While any one of these issues may weigh more heavily on an individual given their background and circumstances, the sum total is that these are creating more anxiety compared to five years ago.”

Despite, or because of, the rise in mental health challenges among workers, employee well-being benefits have recently come under new scrutiny. Oxford researcher William Fleming analyzed survey responses from 46,336 workers and found that company-sponsored mental health resources, such as meditation apps, did not appear to have a significant impact on worker wellness.

Industry experts were quick to criticize these findings, however. For instance, Chaifetz calls Fleming’s research “absolute nonsense,” stating that his firm, which provides mental health benefits for more than 78,000 organizations and 163 million workers worldwidehas “a wealth of validated outcome data that prove mental health benefits and the broad array of services we provide not only improve employee well-being, but also enhance company productivity and culture.”

But Fleming says it’s important to be scrupulous when assessing how genuine of a commitment each company is making to improving employee wellness. “Especially post-pandemic, there’s been a growing awareness that a lot of corporate approaches to well-being have not been adequate,” Fleming says. “Sometimes the solution is more expensive than throwing a well-being app at the problem.”

He argues that companies often offer well-being benefits reactively rather than proactively investing in creating equitable workplaces where workers feel compensated and treated fairly for their work. “A more comprehensive approach is harder, but it’s what’s most effective,” Fleming says.

Indeed, another challenge to improving the worker well-being crisis may be the growing CEO-to-worker pay gap. Trevor Watkins, a professor at the University of Oklahoma who studies organizational behavior and employee well-being, says that the gap between workers and CEO earnings can cause “emotional damage” to employees.

To address the worker well-being crisis, employers need to shift how they promote equity and connection, argues Shoket. “Work has to step up to the plate,” she says. “[Employers must] make us feel connected and seen and valued and respected for our contributions.”


The degree to which employers care, or should care, about the well-being of their workers is a long-standing subject of interest among economists. For instance, in Adam Smith’s 1776 The Wealth of Nations, he suggests that workers’ happiness doesn’t matter much, so long as they are paid enough. And in 1844, Karl Marx wrote that capitalism inherently makes workers “miserable and not happy” because it does not allow them to spend their time as they please.

“In the ’20s . . . people [were] having this same argument,” Ward says, “which comes down to, how do you treat your workers? And does it matter for the business’s bottom line?”

Ward says that economists today have access to larger and more detailed data sets and more powerful econometric methods that are finally allowing researchers to come to a consensus on these questions. His work suggests that happier workers can lead to more productive companies, reduce turnover, and improve hiring. But despite dedicating years of his life to proving the business case for worker well-being, he still questions whether the marginal increases will be appreciated by employers.

“It could be perfectly true that happier workers are more productive and more likely to stay, but that says nothing about the costs,” he says. “Do [leaders] not believe the evidence or do they just not think it’s going to be worth it? They may think ‘with that money, I can increase profits some other way by a much larger amount.’”

Oxford’s De Neve says new environmental, social, and governance (ESG) reporting expectations will provide new market pressures for employers to pay more attention to worker happiness and well-being because “now, a chunk of your ESG rating is contingent on how workers feel they’re being treated.”

De Neve maintains that employers should prioritize worker well-being because it’s the right thing to do. “We should care about our fellow human beings and try to give them the best possible work environment,” he says.

But failing that, he expects that emphasizing the business case for happy workers (higher productivity, better retention, and easier talent attraction) alongside the threat of potentially losing ESG investors, will push employers in the right direction.

*Editorial disclosure: Fast Company is a media partner of the World Happiness Summit. Fast Company also partners with the Digital Wellness Institute for the Digitally Balanced Workplace certification program. 

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AJ Hess is a staff editor for Fast Company’s Work Life section. AJ previously covered work and education for CNBC. More

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