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By Kate Morgan
It’s natural to feel thankful that you’re employed, especially when jobs are scarce. But is that gratitude actually a misguided emotion?
It’s become a common refrain: “I’m just grateful to have a job”.
The last year has wreaked undeniable havoc on the working world. Globally, the working hours and income lost in 2020 added up to the equivalent of 255 million full-time jobs. Workplace closures, layoffs and a steep rise in unemployment are enough to make anyone who’s managed to hold onto their job feel some measure of gratitude – or, at least, pressure to be grateful.
That pressure pre-dates the pandemic. One of the most pervasive conversations around jobs is that we should be thankful to be hired, especially when competition for a position is fierce. Candidates are even expected to express the sentiment if they want to be hired in the first place: it’s hard to imagine leaving an interview without saying how much you appreciate being considered, or sending a thank-you email.
But it’s possible some of that gratitude is misplaced. Perhaps it’s not quite appropriate to be thankful that an employer is ‘letting you’ work for them. And while gratitude can be objectively good for you – research consistently associates giving thanks with increased happiness – it also has a darker side that can make you more willing to put up with a situation that makes you unhappy.
Some workers may be much more inclined to feel grateful for their jobs than others.
Workers who expect to be hired or promoted may express less gratitude than those without systemic advantages. This is often the case for white men, who experience more upward mobility than other groups, and less bias that prevents them from securing jobs, or getting interviews in the first place. For instance, multiple studies have shown résumés with “white-sounding” names, and those that downplay racial cues, are significantly more likely to garner a response
Imposter syndrome may also play a part: workers who aren’t confident they deserve their roles may develop feelings of unworthiness, despite being qualified or skilled. Women are particularly vulnerable to imposter syndrome, and may find themselves giving outsize thanks for their jobs. And, in recent months, Latino and black Americans were significantly more likely to be affected by pandemic-related lay-offs than white Americans. Those among these groups who have kept their jobs are likely feeling pressure to express gratitude – even if they have to force it, and even if their workplace doesn’t inspire much to be thankful for.
Although this forced-gratitude problem can happen anywhere, Alex Wood, Centennial Chair in Psychology at the London School of Economics and Political Science, believes Americans particularly feel the obligation. In an individualistic culture like the US, the smallest favours may be taken as a huge boon. Studies show that Americans say “thank you” more often than people in other countries, and in situations others wouldn’t deem deserving of gratitude – like being employed.
“In the US, it seems unacceptable to say one isn’t a grateful person,” says Wood. “In the UK, people would laugh and say, ‘what is there to be grateful for?’ It’s a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. If you manage to get people feeling grateful, things have maybe gone a bit wrong. It should be an equitable exchange.”
The economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic do alter the equation a bit, concedes Wood. It makes sense that an employer should be thankful for employees working more hours than usual to keep a suffering business afloat, and that employees would feel gratitude for a boss who didn’t let them go when profits fell.
“If it’s been costly to the employer to employ you,” he says, “then, yes, you’re going to feel grateful.” In that case, the gratitude between employer and employee is warranted, adds Wood. Globally, the pandemic has created that dynamic in some workplaces.
The problem with gratitude
Although some gratitude is genuine and spontaneous, other expressions of thanks – like the kind many workers feel pressured to exhibit right now – aren’t similarly authentic. And this forced, phony gratitude can backfire.
“If we’re asked to think about a time when we practiced forced gratitude, most of us can come up with one,” says Sarah Greenberg, a California-based psychotherapist and corporate mental-health consultant. “Like when we’re young and don’t want to eat our peas, and our parent says, ‘be grateful you have food!’. Well, we continue to do that to ourselves as adults. That forced gratitude becomes a social norm, and then it becomes our internal voice.”
An employee may start to think, “I really hate my boss”, then stifle that feeling by thinking, “but I’m so grateful just to have my job”
As adults, in social situations and at work, we start telling ourselves not to complain, to appreciate what we have. And once we start forcing ourselves to be grateful, we may begin using a tactic Greenberg calls “gratitude bypassing” to avoid other, negative emotions. For instance, she says, an employee may start to think, “I really hate my boss”, then stifle that feeling by thinking, “but I’m so grateful just to have my job”.
Suppressing or avoiding negative feelings isn’t healthy, says Greenberg. “If you’re calling emotional avoidance ‘gratitude’, you won’t see the positive effects of gratitude, and you will see the negative effects of emotion avoidance.”
Bypassing and avoidance only offer a temporary solution, she explains. Eventually, the negative emotions will catch up with us – and will likely be even more intense when they do. Rather than being annoyed or angry by something a manager said, then moving on, these feelings can build, and turn into resentment. But by masking those feelings, or substituting forced gratitude, we’re also missing out how those feelings can motivate us to improve our situations.
“Emotions have function,” she says. “So, we don’t want to cut that off.” If you’re telling yourself you feel grateful, when “actually what you’re feeling is stress, fear, complete exhaustion or sadness”, you could be ignoring the emotions that alert you that something is wrong.
In other words, if you’re too focused on why you should be grateful for your work, you may not realise that it’s become thankless. It’s a recipe, says Greenberg, for getting stuck in a job long after you should’ve left.
The employer advantage
Misplaced gratitude, adds Wood, could lead to mistreatment from employers who know their workers won’t complain or leave, due to job-shortage concerns.
“I have concerns with gratitude in the present climate,” says Wood. “In the time of Covid, one needs to be extra critical, because it might make us more exploitable. There are going to be many employers who will try to use it as an excuse to pay their workers less, or ‘cut down on expenses’ by having fewer employees doing more work. And if people are feeling grateful for having a job, that might dissuade them from standing up for their rights.”
The pressure to be ‘grateful’ for employment is inherently odd, according to Greenberg. A job, after all, is essentially a service a person performs to help a company make money.
“I think the old school of thought is, ‘well, I’m giving you a pay check, so you owe me’. It’s amazing what employers have come to expect in exchange for that pay check,” she says. “We work such long hours. We’re working remotely more than ever before, and as a result people are just working endless hours; we’re always on. That has such a big toll on wellbeing and health. Still, we’re getting the message that we’re supposed to feel grateful just to get to keep going to work.”
Embracing the ‘grey zone’
Greenburg explains that while it’s OK – and natural – to feel genuinely thankful to be employed, especially right now, the same person is also allowed to have valid complaints about their job.
“We have these black-and-white ideas when it comes to emotions,” she says. “We might see it as these two poles: on the one hand is an ingrate curmudgeon. On the other is toxic positivity. We don’t always know how to be in that grey area, when often it’s fairly simple. It’s really OK to have more than one emotion at the same time. So yes, you’re grateful to have a job, and that can be true. You’re grateful to have security at an insecure time. But you hate your boss, and that’s also true. Between those polarities, there’s a grey zone.”
If you’re too focused on why you should be grateful for your work, you may not realise that it’s become thankless
That grey area is a good place for critically examining your gratitude, adds Wood. It’s only appropriate to feel grateful when a person or company is truly acting altruistically. And you can determine that using three basic criteria: “Ask yourself,” says Wood, “are they doing it for me? Is it valuable to me? Is it costly for them?”
When you begin to use this system of appraisal, the list of things you’re truly grateful for may get a bit shorter, but Wood says that by eliminating misplaced gratitude, you’re more likely to feel the powerful benefits of the real thing.
“Once you get your head around it, it’s a thing you can use practically,” he says. “Gratitude is extremely healthy if you’re correct in the appraisal. ”If your employer really does deserve your thanks, it’s likely to make you more content in your job overall. If they don’t, you’re in a better position to assess why not, and take steps to change your situation.
“When you’re more accurate, you can express your gratitude more authentically,” says Wood, “and that’s the kind that actually makes you happier.”