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The brave face with the fixed grin: the problem with job satisfaction

Stephen Overell

30 November 2010

The problem with the notion of job satisfaction is that it is impossible to know what it is measuring: does it say anything about the nature of a job or is it a reflection of the willingness of people to put a brave face on things? If it goes up, does it mean expectations have fallen or that experiences of work have improved? And if it goes down does it mean employees are adapting poorly or changes are not in their interests?

So news from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development showing that job satisfaction has risen during the troubled economic climate does not so much confound predictions as demonstrate the problem.

The CIPD explain it as a 'fixed grin' phenomenon: tougher times mean expectations lower and people are grateful just to have a job. Perhaps so. But on this logic, economic booms are subjectively bad for people because, their basic needs catered for, they up the Maslovian stakes and start looking for stimulation, friendship and meaning from their work and are sure to be disappointed as a result.

Is job satisfaction useful? It is certainly useful to psychologists: counter-intuitive intrigue lies within. Economists are also coming to view it as useful because satisfaction is seen as being predictive of less abstract things such as quit rates and absenteeism. But among workplace specialists, job satisfaction attracts very mixed notices as a measure of employee wellbeing.

In The Work Foundation’s work on job quality, for example, we favour measures of task discretion, work intensity, job insecurity, working time and skills utilisation . As a kind of dashboard of indicators of good work, we would argue these are more objective and useful than 'satisfaction'. And after all, 'satisfied' can mean 'so-so', 'fine' or 'below-par'. There feels like something quintessentially passive and maybe even 20th century about the notion of mere 'satisfaction' with work. 

The approach of the Workplace Employment Relations Survey is a step forward, though. Rather than a simple measure of job satisfaction, it asks for satisfaction with eight different dimensions of work including pay, hours, job security, involvement the scope for using one’s initiative and the influence over the job. Involvement and pay are the big dis-satisfiers – or rather were in 2004 (the last WERS). These offer far more detailed insight into the nature of work.

The more worrying findings from the CIPD survey stem from perceptions of the recession on rising stress levels along with falling security and deteriorating standards of living. The downturn may well have worsened the quality of work, but the Coalition, for understandable reasons, has focussed on getting jobs not the quality of them. Like growth, however, the coming years are likely to demand a more convincing story about the workplace and the place of work in a Big Society.