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The Myth of Job Happiness

Despite still-low unemployment and growing employee power, job-satisfaction rates are lower than ever. What's a beleaguered HR person to do?

September 6, 2001
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Related Topics: Stress Management, Motivating Employees, Retention
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Let's take all the corporate workersfrom coast to coast, blend them together, and create the so-called averageAmerican employee. An employee whose name is, say, Bob.

    Bob has brown hair,wears khaki pants that are a little too tight, and uses gold wire-rim glassesfor reading. He spends too much money on coffee and routinely uses office e-mailfor personal reasons.

    In the last fiveyears, Bob has received two promotions with hefty pay raises. He has companystock options, takes his daughter to the on-site day care, and telecommutes fromhome at least once a week. Bob's company has struggled so much to keep talentedemployees like him around that managers recently told him he could bring his dogto work. Bob declined. The creature, apparently, isn't well behaved.

Although the actual numberof workers who've pocketed the big bucks is extremely low, widespread pressattention about those who have has raised everyone's expectations.

    Given what you knowabout Bob, you'd think that he'd be a happy camper. His company wants hisservices, rewards him well, and offers extra incentives to make his family lifeeasier to manage. Bob should be more satisfied than ever, right?

    Well, no.

    Despite ongoing wagegrowth, record employment, and - at least until very recently - the longesteconomic expansion in history, and the fact that HR professionals are lyingawake nights dreaming of ways to keep the Bobs of the world happy, American jobsatisfaction levels are lower now than they were five years ago.

    A survey conductedby The Conference Board, which polled 5,000 U.S. households and was released inOctober 2000, reveals that less than half of all workers, including those indifferent age groups and income levels, are satisfied with their work. Whilethey feel slightly better about job security (50.2 percent now versus 48.6percent in 1995), they gave dismal ratings to promotional policies, bonuses, andeducation and training. Even relationships with coworkers, typically ranked asthe most enjoyable part of a person's job, slipped in satisfaction from 64 to 59percent in just five years.

    No one has to tellHR professionals about the problems caused by unhappy workers like Bob. The longlist includes increased job-hopping, higher use of employee-assistance services,declining productivity, energy-sapping morale problems, and a greaterwillingness to file discrimination complaints. If job satisfaction is a downhillsled in good times, what can we expect now that the economy is starting to slow?

    To understand whyjob satisfaction has declined, you must first understand that expectation is theengine that drives satisfaction. "All satisfaction or dissatisfaction isthe result of a gap between expectations and reality," says NicholasDiMarco, professor of HR management at Webster University in St. Louis. "Ifjob satisfaction is low, expectations could be relatively high." Andindeed, high or at least misplaced expectations do seem to be at the heart ofthe current job-satisfaction crisis.

    Why do so manyemployees have such lofty expectations of their jobs? And why now, when thelabor market has shifted the balance of power in their favor?

    There are severalreasons. One of the biggest may, ironically, be the fact that things have beenso good for so long. Workers have been reading for years about such things aslucrative signing bonuses, companies willing to pay top dollar for talentedemployees, and until recently, the dot-com millionaire phenomenon.

    Although the actualnumber of workers who've pocketed the big bucks is extremely low, widespreadpress attention about those who have has raised everyone's expectations. This,in turn, has created a psychological climate in which those who haven't scoredfinancial windfalls are seized with envy and start subscribing tograss-is-greener thinking.

    "When theeconomy is good and people start thinking they can do better at other companies,their job dissatisfaction rises," says David Dell, research director ofcapabilities management at The Conference Board. "They tend to think,'Other people have fistfuls of lottery tickets and are instant millionaires. Whyaren't I?' " In fact, much of the corporate job-hopping of the last fewyears can be attributed to the belief that things are better elsewhere.

Employees have so many oftheir basic needs being taken care of that they now have the time to search formore meaning in their lives.

    At the other end ofthe spectrum are employees who do stay put at their companies and work harderthan ever, hoping to share the riches they've helped to generate. Thisstrike-while-the-iron-is-hot mentality has caused far too many workers toforfeit personal relationships, community involvement, and workouts at the gym.Instead, they are putting in long hours at the office in an effort to make theirmark and build their bonus packages.

    Granted, far toomany companies still require overtime from employees. It's also true that manyemployees willingly clock in for extended periods on the basis of nothing morethan the expectation that they will be rewarded. If they are not ultimatelyrewarded as they expected to be, they feel taken advantage of. Job satisfactionplummets.

    Okay, let's assumefor a moment that all those employees who've been working hard for theircompanies do get their piece of the economic pie. Does their job-satisfactionlevel rise at the point of payout? Are the riches they've strived for worth theeffort? Sadly, no. Bigger paychecks rarely equate with higher job satisfaction.

    "Once peoplerise above the poverty level, there is absolutely no correlation between moneyand happiness," says Robert Lane, author of TheLoss of Happiness in Market Democracies (Yale University Press,2000). "In prosperous countries like the United States, studies haveroutinely shown that the things that make people happy are family satisfaction,friendships and relationships with other people, but not money."

    Although the boomingeconomy has given most employees enough wealth to stop worrying about basicneeds such as food and clothing, the economy has also seduced them withever-higher materialistic goals, such as making more money and buying biggercars. In fact, Lane says, the drive for money actually has the opposite effect.It causes workers to give up the things that actually do create happiness.Instead of blaming misplaced values for their despair, they blame their jobs.

    But today'semployees aren't looking solely for huge financial windfalls from their jobs.They are also looking for their jobs to provide the friendships, family support,community, and sense of identity that many have given up outside work.

    "Jobsatisfaction has been declining for years because employees are expecting thewrong things from the workplace," says Dave Arnott, author of CorporateCults: The Insidious Lure of the All-Consuming Organization (AMACOMBooks, 2000). "They are expecting emotional satisfaction from work, notjust financial satisfaction."

    Benjamin Hunnicutt,a historian and professor of leisure studies at the University of Iowa in IowaCity, agrees with Arnott. "It's a myth that we can find identity, meaning,and community at work," he says. "I call it the Mary Tyler Moore myth.Everyone thinks they will go to work and find a wonderful group of people toserve as family and friends, like Mary Tyler Moore did in the 1970s sitcom. Inreality, employees find dullards and irrational bosses." The idea thatemployees can find community and people to love in a highly politicalenvironment like the workplace is flawed, Hunnicutt adds, "because work isabout control."

    Ironically, HRdirectors as far back as the 1940s were the first ones to tell employees thatwork could and should be more than a place to earn a paycheck. "The oldform of business management was to provide external motivation - e.g., wages forhours - to employees in an effort to boost productivity," Hunnicutt says.

    But with the dawn ofthe human-relations movement in the 1940s, companies began to focus on intrinsicmotivation in the belief that a fulfilled worker - not just a well-paid one - ismost productive. It was at that point that employers started to focus on workingconditions, workplace relationships, and the value of a person's work as a wayof boosting job satisfaction and thus, productivity. "In short, companiesbegan to propagandize work," Hunnicutt says. Then, as more employees boughtinto the notion that work can be meaningful, they began, naturally, to searchfor more and more meaning from their jobs.

A few employees are even living the Mary Tyler Moore myth of community and belonging.

    Today's HR managershave certainly done their part to elevate the notion that work can form thecenter of a person's universe. They offer company softball leagues, employeebirthday parties, on-site day care, meditation rooms, dry cleaning services,wellness centers, travel clubs. "What this does," Arnott says,"is encult people in the workplace." By giving up relationships andactivities outside work, it becomes increasingly difficult for employees tounderstand that who they are is separate from what they do.

    "In theirdefense, HR directors didn't have the intention to encult people," Arnottadds. "Employees and unions were the ones asking for such things."Regardless of who is responsible, the fact remains that employees areincreasingly relying on their jobs for a helluva lot more than a weeklypaycheck. With so much riding on jobs, it's no wonder that satisfaction hasplummeted.

    Another way oflooking at the job-satisfaction quandary is to take your old psychology textbookoff the shelf and reacquaint yourself with Abraham Maslow's hierarchy-of-needstheory. Maslow argued that all people have four basic needs that must be metbefore a higher-order need can be pursued.

    At the bottom of theneeds pyramid are physiological needs such as hunger and thirst. Once thoseneeds have been met, people pay attention to safety needs, such as avoidance ofpain and anxiety. When a person feels safe, he or she can begin to seek a senseof belonging and love. Next comes the need for self-respect and mastery of atalent.

    And finally, peoplecan begin to search for the pinnacle of human existence - a state that Maslowcalled "self-actualization." It is at this point that people have thetime to seek truth, beauty, and the complete realization of who they are asindividuals. None of the needs in the hierarchy are fulfilled automatically,Maslow stressed. People must work to acquire them.

    In this time ofgreat economic prosperity and job opportunity, it could be that employees haveso many of their basic needs being taken care of that they now have the time tosearch for more meaning in their lives. Employees are not going hungry. Theydon't have to search for work. Many of them are being challenged. And a few areeven living the Mary Tyler Moore myth of community and belonging. Becausetoday's employees aren't struggling, they have the opportunity to focus onwhatever higher-order needs they don't already possess.

    In a time of greatprosperity, it isn't surprising that the average employee - an employee like Bob- would expect more of his job. And it just may be those heightened expectationsthat are causing the decline in job satisfaction.


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