Not a day goes by without another headline about Gen Z and their negative impact on the workplace. They take more sick days than their peers, are lazy, entitled, lack communication skills, and, according to a recent report, don’t enjoy working in a team. Even when they do step up, they are criticised for being digital natives that can’t work basic tech or for running side hustles. It sometimes seems like the young generation can’t get it right.

But are they really to blame for everything that ills the working world? I suggest not. We have experienced so much chaos and upheaval in our working lives since the beginning of this decade that the problems at many businesses and organisations are far more profound than their newest team members. For many business leaders, it is far easier to complain about Gen Z than to face the reality of what is happening with their teams and in their wider workplace.

Don’t get me wrong, Gen Zs are unhappy – just look at the plethora of negative workplace buzzwords we have seen this year; most are driven by younger workers – but they aren’t alone. According to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace 2023 report, 90% of UK workers are unhappy at work and lack enthusiasm for their jobs.

This sentiment is clearly reflected in the UK’s well-documented problems with low productivity, widespread worker disengagement and growing levels of worry, stress, anger, and burnout. UK businesses and organisations can no longer ignore these issues. There is an urgent need to act, and it must start within. It is time to start putting worker engagement and experience on par with the customer.

The real question for most organisations is where to start. Well, actually, it’s pretty simple: leadership. The impact of managers on the workplace overall is impossible to overstate. One of the key takeaways from the Gallup report was that leadership development should be a practice rather than an event. And that development should focus on building and deepening self-awareness and strong communication skills. Because when leaders thrive, so do their teams.

Many organisations say that wellbeing has never been more important, but how many actually walk to the walk? Wellbeing has been hijacked by lazy managers looking for quick wins that make a show of caring. Forget the cliches of free fruit and lunchtime walking groups; disengaged staff crave recognition for their work, opportunities to develop and play to their strengths and clear goals with the support and guidance they need to achieve them.

If leaders are given continued coaching and support to better understand themselves and their strengths, they can bring more of who they really are and what they value into the workplace. Authenticity, much like wellbeing, has become one of the most desirable and discussed workplace buzzwords in recent times. However, according to our research carried out in 2021, just 16% of feel able to be themselves at work.

Yet, by bringing more of themselves into the workplace, leaders can transform that culture. Poor workplace culture or engagement is cited as the top reason why workers are quiet quitting. Creating an empathetic workplace by seeking to understand what teams need to succeed, celebrating that success when it comes and regularly setting clear and achievable goals to keep motivation high can be transformative.

To chip away at the negative narrative around work that has become hardwired for so many, however, people must also take responsibility for their own work life. Again, good leaders empower their teams to act independently through opportunities for training and development, support, and feedback. They know what their teams need because they have taken the time to identify their strengths, learn their goals, and, crucially, listen to what they need.

For managers, making these changes is as simple as opening up a dialogue with your teams. Ask for feedback and act on it; it shows both recognition of people’s opinions and a willingness to change and develop as a manager. Hold regular meetings with people to find out how they are progressing and iron out any issues, and remember to give credit, even if it is just a simple thank you. The impact can be huge.

Workers can meet that behaviour change by giving their feedback honestly, but respectfully, by thinking about their professional and personal goals and understanding how they can benefit the team and wider business. By understanding their strengths, playing to them, and recognising when colleagues are doing the same thing. It all creates an empathic and inclusive workplace that allows people space to drop their professional persona and be themselves.

It is impossible to predict what working life will look like in the future, but we know things are changing, at times, rapidly. From hybrid working to AI, we can expect some roles to disappear completely, others to significantly change and, of course, new jobs to be created. We already know that people want to feel that work is meaningful and purposeful and want jobs that align with their values. That will only increase as AI and machine learning reduce the number of repetitive and menial roles.

But an increasingly digital world will come with other pressures, such as the need to keep pace with ever changing tech skills, a constant need for new ideas, and rapidly developing business models. The next generation of managers has a real opportunity to evolve alongside that by focusing less on “managing” and more on coaching, developing, and supporting workers to thrive in that brave new world.

For now, we have to begin by challenging the deeply entrenched attitude that work is only to be tolerated, never enjoyed. For the sake of all generations, not least Gen Z, we have to try to tackle this dissatisfaction with the thing we spend most of our time doing.

We can create systemic and lasting change by changing our attitudes and behaviour in the workplace. People feel more motivated to work and embrace challenges when they feel understood, engaged, and valued for who they really are. And that is a legacy worth leaving for Gen Z and beyond.

Liz Villani
Founder at #BeYourselfAtWork | Website | + posts

Liz Villani is the founder of #BeYourselfAtWork, an organisation which partners with workplaces to create a new narrative around the role that work plays in our lives to boost energy, performance and results. Her company allows and encourages people to be their authentic selves and see work as an opportunity to make a unique difference.