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Want happy employees? Make 'jobs worth liking': Author

More than half of all American workers are the unhappiest they've been at work in two decades. In fact, only 45 percent describe themselves as satisfied with their jobs, according to the non-profit research group, The Conference Board.

Back in 1987, 61 percent of Americans surveyed were happy at their work when the group began their annual survey. So why do so many hate their jobs so much?

"Because nobody has tried to make jobs worth liking." Swarthmore College professor Barry Schwartz told CNBC in an interview with "On The Money".

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In his new book, "Why We Work", Schwartz looks for answers why some find fulfillment in their occupation, while others find frustration in their daily grind.

Schwartz said that "people do care about what they do," but he says the assumption that has guided private sector development is "that the only reason anybody works is to get paid. And as long as you're getting paid, it doesn't matter what you do."

The psychologist said that wasn't true 200 years ago and it's not true now. However, he says now, it "seems impossible to penetrate the skulls of people who organize workplaces" to change that view.

More disgruntled than ever?

A scene from the movie "Office Space."
Source: Office Space
A scene from the movie "Office Space."

According to Gallup, the problem of frustrated workers is even worse globally. A 2013 study found just 13 percent of workers say they are "engaged" at work. While 63 percent are "not engaged" and 24 percent are even less interested in their job, saying they are "actively disengaged."

The key to getting people to appreciate their jobs more, says Schwartz, is doing "work they think is meaningful, which usually means work that has some positive effect on other people." Schwartz also found workers want work where they have "some control, discretion and autonomy" in their work roles.

He added that they want work "where they feel respected by the people they work with and the people who supervise them," in addition to opportunities to "learn develop and grow."

Naturally, a key incentive is money. "They also want a paycheck, of course," said Schwartz. However, that shouldn't be seen as a "substitute for these other things. And we've kind of acted as if, if you get the pay right you don't have to worry about what the job is."

Find the meaning

In his search for workers who find "meaning" at work he says he "intentionally chose jobs that we think of as menial." In his book, he cites hospital janitors as a prime example of finding happiness in menial work.

While their job is to wash floors and empty trash, Schwartz found some who go beyond their job description to do more than the minimum and find more "engagement' in their job.

"Some (janitors) think their job is to comfort patients, to get patients to laugh, to ease the anxiety of the patient's families," He adds that these same employees think "their job is doing whatever I can to make the hospital run better."

Schwartz added that the janitor example shows that any worker "can get meaning and satisfaction out of that work, than potentially you can find it in almost anywhere."

--On the Money airs on CNBC Sundays at 7:30 pm, or check listings for airtimes in local markets.