Mary Brainerd, CEO of HealthPartners, was musing the other day about public polls that rank CEOs just about dead last. They place somewhere below members of Congress and con artists.

Appropriately, Brainerd was addressing a luncheon of employees from more than 100 companies, including her own, where employees had nominated their employers for the annual “Top Workplaces” survey. Results were covered in a special tabloid in Sunday’s Star Tribune.

Brainerd talked about what she and her management team are trying to do at growing HealthPartners to keep employees inspired and engaged.

It’s a tough task. Employees, even those of us who hung on to our jobs during the Great Recession, continue to be unhappy, or “disengaged,” at record levels, even as the economy has improved, according to Don MacPherson, CEO of Modern Survey.

His Minneapolis-based company surveys 1,000 employees annually for several dozen employer clients.

Employee disengagement among U.S. workers rose this spring to a record 32 percent, MacPherson said of the semiannual National Employee Engagement Study. Another 36 percent are “unengaged’’ — or not fully committed on the job.

Meanwhile, the percentage of fully engaged employees fell to 10 percent this spring, down 3 points from last fall. The remaining 22 percent of us working stiffs are “somewhat’’ into our work.

MacPherson, 44, who started 33-employee Modern Survey with two partners in 1999, hasn’t seen employee engagement numbers so low since he started doing surveys as a contract employee at what is now Ameriprise Financial 15 years ago.

His take: Disengaged employees and their bosses are both to blame. The trend is bad overall because disengaged employees are not as productive as engaged employees; can upset the workplace, and bad-mouth the company to customers and prospective employees.

MacPherson’s job is to explain the results to client employers and suggest what employers can do to reverse the situation.

Back in 2007, before the Great Recession, unemployment was 4.5 percent nationally, not 7.6 percent as reported in May. There was more job mobility. Employers would do more to retain some employees. More-secure employees were focused on recognition, development and advancement. Or they’d split.

‘Safety and security’ mode

Since the recession and attendant pay cuts or layoffs, employees generally have moved to a “safety and security” mode, MacPherson said. We need this job. There’s less internal opportunity at companies that generally are producing more with fewer people.

Today, employees are more critical of senior management, including their boss’ compensation, ethics, behavior and whether they have a growth plan that can expand opportunity and rewards.

Baby boomers are compounding the situation. Many realize, despite once-upon-a-time plans to retire early, that they need to work until 67 or longer to afford to retire. Twenty-somethings further complicate the picture. They graduated from college with a pile of debt, and many are unhappy with their lot. Instead of making $50,000 or $60,000 as marketing or business managers, they’re making $25,000 to $35,000 waiting tables or as a low-rung manager in retail or hospitality.

Human resource professionals tell us that employees should bring their best to work, but 70 percent of employees are “underengaged,’’ MacPherson said.

Modern Survey uses its measurement software, feedback and other quantitative and analytical results to explain what’s going on to management and what it needs to do to more fully engage employees.

Many companies fall short on recognition and communications. For example, MacPherson worked with a nonprofit where employees embraced the mission, but felt they were underpaid. They felt a little better after management showed them salary comparisons that showed they may not be making what some for-profit employees were making, but they were consistent with their peers.

Change can be glacial

“It takes three to five years to change an organization,” MacPherson said. “If senior leaders don’t communicate effectively, employees make up their own reality.”

An improving economy and pay raises can help. A new job is another option in a better economy.

We also can improve ourselves, our outlook and our performance.

Many folks say circumstances dictate our happiness. MacPherson, who once quit a decent job to move to Germany, play club basketball, learn the language and the culture, says human psychology holds that 10 percent of our happiness is dictated by circumstances, 40 percent by genetic makeup and 50 percent is personal choice.

We all know colleagues who never complain, who are collaborative and fun. And there’s the one who’s always whining and makes a rough day worse.

“Ultimately, you decide if you’re going to be happy on the job,” McPherson said. “It’s just easier if you work for a great organization and a great leader.”