How Job Satisfaction Works

OK, there are precious few people able to say they achieve actual bliss on the job. But job satisfaction isn’t a myth – some people really do love their work.
OK, there are precious few people able to say they achieve actual bliss on the job. But job satisfaction isn’t a myth – some people really do love their work.

Do you whistle while you work, or do you have a case of the Mondays – every day? It's cliché, sure, but for a reason. Compared to people who make their living doing something they'd probably do regardless of a paycheck, many more of us cringe a bit when asked that oh-so familiar ice-breaking question, "So what do you do?"

That cringe, though, isn't necessarily because you're about to admit, say, you have the "worst" job – which happens to be a lumberjack as of 2014; you could spend your days as a lumberjack and enjoy your work more than a mathematician – which happens to be considered the "best" job [source: Perman]. How you, personally, fall along that spectrum of job love and hate is your level of job satisfaction. How content do you feel about your work?


Overall, most of us really don't like our jobs. Our job satisfaction is so low, it turns out – and we're talking about the global workforce, across 90 countries and not just the one you call home – that almost two-thirds of employees report they're completely disengaged from their job, clocking in and out to collect a paycheck. Only 13 percent report they feel emotionally invested in their work [source: Gallup].

Which then brings up the question, exactly how do we know whether we are, in fact, satisfied with our work or whether we're just having a bad day at it? Let's travel back to the '50s.

In the late 1950s, American psychologist Frederick Herzberg asked people to think of a time when they felt good about their job, and why they felt good, followed by a time when they didn't, and what made them feel that way. He theorized from employee answers that our motivation and satisfaction on the job is determined by what he called hygiene and motivators. In this instance, hygiene has nothing to do with your cleanliness. Here, hygiene refers to those intrinsic things that really bug you about your work environment, such as that company vacation policy you happen to disagree with. Motivators, on the other hand, are the extrinsic things about your job that make you feel appreciated and creative, such as growth and advancement. According to Herzberg's motivator-hygiene theory, you can't begin to improve job satisfaction without first addressing those hygiene issues; motivators come second. Basically, your satisfaction won't improve with perks if you don't first enjoy the work you're doing.

Things haven't changed much since then – it turns out Herzberg was pretty spot on – and the way we look at job satisfaction today feels pretty similar to those hygiene and motivator factors; we just don't look at the dimensions of job satisfaction in two categories anymore. To determine an employee's job satisfaction these days, we evaluate how that individual employee perceives several facets of his or her work life. This includes the amount of on-the-job stress, work environment, compensation, perks, communication, recognition, opportunities for growth and advancement, and whether that employee finds any meaning in the work itself.


Stress, Job Security and Communication

Constantly worrying about a potential layoff is just one of many stress factors that can ruin your happiness with your work.
Constantly worrying about a potential layoff is just one of many stress factors that can ruin your happiness with your work.

Many of you would probably guess that money is the biggest ticket to job satisfaction – but you'd be wrong. After synthesizing and analyzing more than 100 years of research, human resource experts and scientists have learned one thing: How much money we make doesn't really correlate to how happy we are with our job. Yes, compensation does matter, especially when it comes to how motivated we feel, but our on-the-job experience, the intrinsic characteristics of the job (those things such as your daily tasks and workload) matter more. Even if the money is good, the shine of a new salary or bonus wears off, leaving behind the reality of day-to-day work life. Take stress, for example.

Stress at work can come from all different directions. Employees may not have the appropriate skills or personality for the job they're in, for instance, leaving them feeling overwhelmed and, frankly, probably not very good at producing results. And those who may have the skills and ability but lack clear expectations and goals may feel disconnected from the team and unsatisfied. Deadlines, paperwork hassles, broken equipment – we can feel the tension rising throughout the day.


But there's more to job stress than hitting a deadline for your TPS reports. When those due dates turn into impossible deadlines and heavy workloads, the impact makes it difficult not only to meet the employer's expectations and goals, but personal expectations and goals, too – and the pressure to successfully complete assignments can erode both the quality of the in-office environment (all those long work days and skipped breaks add up) and employee work-life balance.

The uncertainty of the job market along with company cost-cutting measures and a growing anger over questionable company ethics introduces distrust and creates a stressed and disillusioned workforce. Fewer than half of all workers report even minimal satisfaction with their work [source: Weber]. Pile on top of that disappearing benefits such as healthcare coverage and sick leave, and we're less happy with our work today than we were about a quarter century ago in the late '80s, when more than 60 percent of employees reported they were satisfied with their job. This is a growing change that human resource experts blame, at least in part, on the disappearing trust and loyalty between employee and employer.

Consider the millennials (born between 1980 and 1999) for instance: Compared to previous generations who would often commit to a company for decades, millennials hold little value in company loyalty and typically move from company to company about every year or so (compared to an overall average employee turnover of 4.4 years in today's job market) [source: Grant]. Their motivation for job satisfaction? Workplace culture and perks – and the bigger and cooler the better. Does your company have a roller hockey rink? Didn't think so. But perks, no matter how big, can only go so far in boosting job satisfaction. For example, you may have a game room at the office, but if it goes unused, what's the point?

Additionally, office relationships are meaningful, both with coworkers and with management. If you feel you have a poor or negative relationship with your coworkers and bosses (especially if you consider your office a hostile work environment) you might feel disrespected, isolated or that you just don't fit in with the culture. As many as half of U.S. workers report conflicts among coworkers at work, favoritism and, not surprisingly, low morale at their workplace [source: Hill]. Work environments where employees feel they have frequent, good communication and a good support system, on the other hand, can make employees feel connected and engaged. Engaged workers are happier workers, with higher productivity rates. With or without a hockey rink.


Job Satisfaction Factors: Recognition, Compensation and Growth

Being recognized for achievement at work is great, but growth potential is also vital for employee happiness.
Being recognized for achievement at work is great, but growth potential is also vital for employee happiness.
©Creatas Images/Thinkstock

In addition to good rapport and realistic, well-communicated expectations and goals, recognition and appreciation of achievements means greater satisfaction for employees. It's no surprise that workers who feel their boss isn't paying attention or places more emphasis on the company's bottom line have lower job satisfaction.

While salary, raises and bonuses are important incentives during the hiring and performance review process, in 2012 it wasn't pay that the majority of employees named as the most important factor in their job satisfaction. Sixty-three percent of those surveyed said that the opportunity to use their skills and talents at work was the most important to them, bumping job security – which had held the number one spot consistently since 2008 – into the second spot. Only a little more than half of employees named compensation as very important to their job satisfaction [source: SHRM].


But here's the kooky thing about compensation: It's not what we actually get paid that matters most (although, of course it matters). Rather, it's our perception of how fairly we think we're paid. For instance, if I think you take home a bigger paycheck than I do for doing the same work, we can subtract points from my overall job satisfaction. And it's the same when we compare salaries with those in our field who don't work at the same company.

People who are motivated by their work rather than by their compensation – no matter what that salary amount is — are three times as likely to be engaged at work and report greater job satisfaction than people who approach their work as another day, another dollar [source: Cho].

Even if you do enjoy your work, for many workers there comes a time when it stagnates; you know your job inside and out and, well, it's become a bit of a bore. This is where personal growth and advancement opportunities come into play with regard to overall job satisfaction. Being able to use your talents is the most important dimension in job security, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, and developing those skills through mentoring, training and education programs injects new challenges and variety into jobs. This lets workers not only stretch their skills – and learn a few new ones – but also imagine future potential with the company. Without a clearly outlined path of advancement, we're likely to ossify, and perhaps even develop a cavalier attitude about what we do. New and exciting trumps the mundane pretty much every time.


Find Meaning: Strategies for Satisfaction

People who work with animals have a high level of job satisfaction, even though the pay isn’t great and it’s often a dirty job.
People who work with animals have a high level of job satisfaction, even though the pay isn’t great and it’s often a dirty job.
©Hemera Technologies/Thinkstock

Zookeepers, despite their low wages and work environment (just consider all that poop scooping), are some of the most passionate, engaged and satisfied workers among all of us. Surprised? They, like people working in the health care field (in addition to public service workers, social workers and teachers), are likely to tell you they believe their work is meaningful – that it has purpose and contributes positively to the world – or that the job is their calling. And when you find personal meaning in your job, you're more likely not only to report higher satisfaction with your work, but also with life outside of the office. Employees who consider their work meaningful are more likely to overlook many of the daily hassles that most of us would probably complain about and are less likely to be absent from work or to report feelings of depression.

But what about those of us who weren't touched by fate? As it turns out, even if you weren't born to do the work you do, if you want to find job satisfaction, there are some tactics you can use to go from routine to rewarding. Strategies you can try as a way to improve your satisfaction situation boil down to one thing: This is a do-it-yourself project. While you look for that job you'd be perfect for, it's your decision to turn the job you have into a job you like.


Employees who've been around the block may want to try mentoring a new colleague or intern as a way to re-engage with and re-envision work that may have become mundane. Challenge yourself to break out of a task-list that's become tedious or trivial by volunteering for a new project, or work on your own personal growth by learning a new skill or pursuing job training. Keep an open mind when thinking about the positives of your job; you may find that your work relationships are meaningful to you and developing them fires up your creativity and desire to collaborate, or that the work you've chosen allows you to have a greater quality of life outside of work.

Lots More Information

Author's Note: How Job Satisfaction Works

I came across an interesting statistic while reading research about our job satisfaction; I believe it was LinkedIn that found millennials like to have friends at work. No, that's not the interesting part. This is: As many as 57 percent of millennials say that having work buddies makes them feel happy and more productive, but then 68 percent admit they'd drop an at-work BFF for a promotion. So much for "Be true to your work, your word and your friend," eh?

Related Sources

More Great Links

  • Bunderson, J. Stuart and Jeffery A. Thompson. "The Call of The Wild: Zookeepers, Callings, and the Dual Edges Of Deeply Meaningful Work." Administrative Science Quarterly. Vol. 54, no. 1. Pages 32-57. (Dec. 26, 2014) March 2009.
  • Cho, Yoon Jik and James L. Perry. "Intrinsic Motivation and Employee Attitudes: Role of Managerial Trustworthiness, Goal Directedness, and Extrinsic Reward Expectancy." Review of Public Personnel Administration. Vol. 32, no. 4. Pages 382-406. December 2012. (Dec. 26, 2014)
  • Dean, Jeremy. "10 Psychological Keys to Job Satisfaction." PsyBlog. July 19, 2011. (Dec. 26, 2014)
  • Grant, Kelli B. "Americans hate their jobs, even with perks." USA Today. June 30, 2013. (Dec. 26, 2014)
  • Gregory, Kristen. "The Importance of Employee Satisfaction." Neumann University. 2011. (Dec. 26, 2014)
  • Harter, Jim. "Jobs Outlook Grim in Countries With More Disengaged Workers." Gallup. Oct. 31, 2014. (Dec. 26, 2014)
  • Hill, Brian. "What Are the Factors Affecting Job Satisfaction?" Houston Chronicle. (Dec. 26, 2014)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Job satisfaction: How to make work more rewarding." Dec. 8, 2012. (Dec. 26, 2014)
  • Perman, Cindy. "The best (and worst) jobs for 2014." CNBC. April 19, 2014. (Dec. 26, 2014)
  • Rosso, Brent. "On the meaning of work: A theoretical integration and review." Research in Organizational Behavior. Vol. 30. Pages 91-127. 2010. (Dec. 26, 2014)
  • Saad, Lydia. "U.S. Workers Least Happy With Their Work Stress and Pay." Gallup. Nov. 12, 2012. (Dec. 26, 2014)
  • Smith, Jacquelyn. "The 25 Most Meaningful Jobs That Pay Well." Forbes. Aug. 7, 2013. (Dec. 26, 2014)
  • Sorenson, Susan. "How to Tackle U.S. Employees' Stagnating Engagement." Gallup. June 11, 2013. (Dec. 26, 2014)
  • Sypniewska, Barbara. "Evaluation of Factors Influencing Job Satisfaction." Contemporary Economics. Vol. 8, no. 1. Pages 57-72. March 31, 2014. (Dec. 26, 2014)
  • Syptak, J. Michael. "Job Satisfaction: Putting Theory Into Practice." Family Practice Management. Vol. 6, no. 9. Pages 26-30. October 1999. (Dec. 26, 2014)
  • The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. "Determinants of Job Satisfaction in the Workplace." (Dec. 26, 2014)
  • Victor, Justina. "A Research Report by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) - 2012 Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement: How Employees Are Dealing With Uncertainty." Society for Human Resource Management. October 2012. (Dec. 26, 2014)
  • Weber, Lauren. "U.S. Workers Can't Get No (Job) Satisfaction." The Wall Street Journal. June 18, 2014. (Dec. 26, 2014)
  • Weir, Kirsten. "More than job satisfaction." Monitor on Psychology. American Psychological Association. Vol. 44, no. 11. Page 39. December 2013. (Dec. 26, 2014)