A good job doesn’t guarantee happiness – but it helps

Today is the second International Day of Happiness, an initiative launched by the United Nations to draw attention to the importance of subjective well-being in general - and, one presumes, in contrast to more narrowly focused measures of material well-being such as GDP.

>Job satisfaction can enhance satisfaction with life in general but problems outside work can also affect how we feel about our jobs

In which case, how important is employment to our overall well-being?  According to the latest figures covering the period November 2013 to January 2014, if we exclude under 16s, 59% of all adults are in employment and the average working week is 32.1 hours, which means that just over 11% of all adults' time is spent on paid work - and considerably more if we were to add in travel time, lunch breaks etc.  Nor is employment important just because it consumes time.  According to the 2012 British Social Attitudes Survey, 71% of those in work thought their paid work meant much more to them than simply a means of earning a living (a percentage that has been going up over time).  We should also note that many people spend considerable time doing unpaid work - either within the home, caring for family or friends or on voluntary activities - and often combined with paid work.

Our summer 2012 Employee Outlook survey asked employees four questions used by the Office for National Statistics to measure general well-being.  Each asks individuals to respond on a zero to ten scale, so these can be added together to give a combined life satisfaction score, which can range from zero to forty.

The chart below shows there is a clear association between life satisfaction and job satisfaction.  Employees who are satisfied with their job have a much higher mean score than employees who are dissatisfied with their job.

Of course, correlation does not mean causation.  The research evidence suggests this can be a two way relationship.  Job satisfaction can enhance satisfaction with life in general but problems (or successes) outside work can also affect how we feel about our jobs.  The relative strength of these relationships (in other words, which has the strongest effect on us at any point in time) no doubt varies across the population and at different points in our life.

So if job satisfaction can increase our satisfaction with life as a whole, what are the ingredients of a satisfying job?  There is no uniform answer because people hold different views about what is most important to them - it could be any (or more) of a high salary, opportunities for advancement, intellectual or physical challenge, friendly colleagues, management that treats them with respect or a sense of serving the public good.

Nevertheless, the population averages from our survey give us some pointers.  The chart below shows the relative odds of somebody being satisfied with their job based on their answers to a range of different questions about their job and their employer.  A positive odds ratio means that someone holding this view is more likely than average to be satisfied with their job.  A negative odds ratio means they are less likely to be satisfied with their job.

Readers of my last blog will recognise some common patterns here.  Employees are more likely to be satisfied with their job if they feel they have adequate voice (opportunities to feed views back to their management), if they have trust and confidence in senior management and if they are engaged (motivated by the core purpose of the organisation).  We also see that the job role is important (stretching and with opportunities to progress - but not too stretching).  Employees also want to feel their line managers and organisations support them in managing the inevitable tensions between work and home.

Working relationships seem especially important in avoiding dissatisfaction (as seen by line manager relationships, bullying and conflict with colleagues occupying the bottom three positions on this chart).  Excessive workload and pressure also make it much more difficult for employees to be satisfied with their work.

There are lessons here for employers seeking to improve employee well-being, job satisfaction and productivity.  There are basics that - if handled badly - make it very difficult to achieve employee satisfaction.  These include the quality of day-to-day working relationships and workload pressures.  Engaging the workforce, however, requires a lot more: jobs that provide challenge and opportunity; an organisational purpose that resonates with employees; and leaders that listen to the workforce and inspire trust and confidence.  Who said it was easy to make people happy?

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  • Having had done a lot of research for my MSc dissertation just recently, I find this article extremely succinct and relevant to the topics at hand.  Great post!