I once had a temp job for almost six months. For four of those months, I went to my car during my lunch break every day and cried because I hated my work so much. My regular tasks were boring and weren't what I was good at, I didn't like what the company stood for, my supervisor was just plain mean, my coworkers were alternately lazy and crazed, and it was the only job where someone raised their voice at me repeatedly, which I think is pretty much unacceptable behavior in professional circumstances. Everything was wrong.

When the company wanted to bring me on as a permanent employee as I drew close to my six-month mark, I was shocked. Couldn't they tell how miserable I was? Obviously not. 

According to a 2012 Gallup poll, I was likely "not engaged" in my work (which Gallup defined as "... lack(ing) motivation and ... less likely to invest discretionary effort in organizational goals or outcomes.") — just like about 63 percent of workers worldwide.

Why would this multinational company want to hire an employee like that? Well, I'm guessing that I was a better option than the 24 percent of workers who are "actively disengaged," which means that not only are they not getting their work done, they were probably spreading negativity to their coworkers. 

In case you're keeping track, that means only about 13 percent of people are engaged in their work (poll-speak for "happy and interested" if I may paraphrase). 

If those numbers surprise you, count yourself among the lucky. While many people might look like they're happy enough at work, the hard data shows that millions hate what they do and they detest where they work. The good news is that over the last decade, sociologists and psychologists have been taking a much closer look at what causes unhappiness — and happiness — on the job. And that information might help all of us who aren't independently wealthy, as businesses start putting some of those findings into practice.

And they'll want to. Happy workers are more productive workers — about 12 percent more productive, according to this study from the University of Warwick. 

The Energy Project partnered up with the Harvard Business Review and surveyed three companies with a total of more than 20,000 workers. They wanted to dig into real people's needs to find what would make them feel engaged and productive on the job. They found: "Employees are vastly more satisfied and productive, it turns out, when four of their core needs are met: physical, through opportunities to regularly renew and recharge at work; emotional, by feeling valued and appreciated for their contributions; mental, when they have the opportunity to focus in an absorbed way on their most important tasks and define when and where they get their work done; and spiritual, by doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose at work."

coworkers playing pingpong in an officePerks make work fun

That's why so many progressive companies offer incentives (like juice bars, games tables, nap pods and other seemingly nonessential office perks) that might seem kinda crazy to the rest of us. Those fun perks are answering a core need for physical renewal. Other initiatives like letting employees choose which tasks they want to do, instead of assigning them, can respond to the core spiritual need we all have to do what we do best.

And while some of these changes don't really cost money, some do (juice bars can't run themselves). But the investment has strong returns. Replacing a valuable employee costs companies serious money — about 20 percent of that employee's annual salary, and those negative workers bring down everyone around them, which is also pricey. 

Companies can also make sure that managers aren't just ensuring those below them are getting their work done. One of the key findings of a TinyPulse survey of more than 200,000 anonymous workers was that only 21 percent of them feel valued by their companies. Raising that number doesn't have to cost big bucks, and has everything to do with a positive office culture that can include low-cost initiatives like weekly massages, rewards for completing work and simple verbal praise on a regular basis from supervisors. Nope, being recognized for your good work doesn't really have to cost a thing. 

I turned down the job at the workplace I detested, and was thankfully able to move on. But I'll never forget the experience, and I still wonder if some of my miserable coworkers are still in that office, making up part of that 24 percent of people who are actively disengaged — to their own detriment, and that company's. 

Related on MNN: 

Photo: /Shutterstock

Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.