Don’t Feel Sorry for the Part-Time Worker

Part-timers happier in many ways than full-time colleagues

By Susan Milligan Dec 30, 2013

Pity the part-time worker, the person who doesn’t feel like a real member of the team and who barely makes enough to pay the rent and utilities.

Or don’t.

Those part-time workers are, in many ways, happier than full-time employees, according to a new book on employee satisfaction.

In comparison with full-time employees, part-timers think they have a better work/life balance, are treated more fairly and—amazingly—are being paid more equitably, said Douglas Klein, co-author, with David Sirota, of The Enthusiastic Employee: How Companies Profit by Giving Employees What They Want(Pearson, 2013).

Part-timers may earn less cash, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re less satisfied, even as the nation struggles out of a recession, Klein concluded.

“It runs almost counterintuitive,” he said. “You would think that people would be more satisfied with their pay during an 'up' economy and less satisfied with their pay during a 'down' economy. In fact, it’s the complete opposite. I had a number of clients whose basic employee model is to work with contract employees and part-time people. Some of those companies have the most engaged and enthusiastic workforces I’ve ever surveyed. It all comes back to” making workers feel like valued members of the team.

Klein and Sirota found that:

  • 80 percent of part-timers are satisfied with the amount of work expected of them, as opposed to 69 percent of full-timers.
  • 81 percent of part-time workers are satisfied with their work/life balance, compared with 73 percent of full-timers.
  • 54 percent of part-timers are satisfied with the pay they’re getting, compared with what they could get elsewhere doing similar work. Forty-seven percent of full-time employees feel this way.
  • 61 percent of part-time workers believe they are being paid fairly, compared with 52 percent of full-timers.

Klein and Sirota’s conclusions run counter to a survey that Gallup conducted in the summer of 2013. That poll showed that one in 12 of the nation’s part-time workers is being treated for depression—about 50 percent higher than the rate for full-time employees. And one in six part-time workers has been diagnosed with depression at some point, compared with one-tenth of full-timers.

That sounds reasonable on its face, HR specialists said, because part-timers may not be working fewer hours by choice. Some of them may have accepted part-time work during the recession because it was better than no work at all. But that’s only part of the story, noted Jesse Siegal, managing director of temporary staffing at New York City-based Execu|Search Group.

“It depends on the person and the reason,” Siegal said. In the case of the happy part-timer, “the choice is obvious—they’re loving it because they have that flexibility. The flip side is people who find themselves working part-time hours because it’s all they can get. Those people, I think, end up going into it a bit more hesitantly and a bit more warily. But once they take part-time hours, they see the benefits.”

For example, someone who lost his job in finance may take a chance on part-time work in a completely different field, doing something he’s always wanted to do but didn’t have the opportunity to pursue, and end up much more satisfied, Siegal said.

Jim Link, managing director of human resources at Randstad US, said satisfaction for part-time and full-time employees may well parallel the trends Randstad has seen in the temporary workforce. Not only is the conventional stigma surrounding part-time and temporary work disappearing, but his company’s data show that such work leaves employees more satisfied and feeling they have better opportunities for advancement.

The big factor that leads to this satisfaction? Flexibility and “the ability to be in charge of their own careers,” Link explained. Workers “are wanting, demanding and getting much more variability in the way they work.”

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) could also have an impact. While foes of the law argue that businesses will turn full-time jobs into part-time ones to avoid providing mandatory health insurance coverage, others contend that unhappy full-time workers will feel free to leave, knowing they cannot be denied insurance anymore because of pre-existing conditions. Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, for one, has complained that the PPACA provides an “escape clause” that will lead his and other companies to convert jobs to part time. The White House, meanwhile, reported recently that more than 90 percent of the jobs created since the PPACA became law are full-time positions.

Full-timers are tempted by the health benefits they—but usually not part-timers—get, said University of Chicago economics professor Carey Mulligan. However, “if the Affordable Care Act ever gets working, there won’t be a need for that anymore. It will push some people to the other side of the fence,” he said. And for many workers, Klein added, the grass might just be greener there.

Susan Milligan is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.


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