Job Satisfaction: Just How Bad Is It?

By Kathy Gurchiek Jan 11, 2010
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A recent Conference Board survey of 5,000 American workers that found that their job satisfaction is the worst in two decades differs significantly from other surveys, which have shown that almost nine out of 10 people are happy with the work they do.

TheWashington Post reported the disparate findings in a Jan. 6, 2010, article. It included references to Gallup polls taken every August from 1989 to 2009 that found 85 percent to 94 percent of respondents were completely or somewhat satisfied with their jobs. It reported similar findings from the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey (GSS) conducted between 1972 and 2008.

Linda Barrington, managing director of human capital at The Conference Board, says she is very interested in the data conflict TheWashington Post raised.

If “this is bigger than technical differences in methodology, the apparent contrast in the trend of satisfaction with the work people do versus the job they hold is one that should make HR executives sit up and take note,” she said in an e-mail.

And there are some methodological differences, Barrington said. She pointed to the GSS survey that used a different numerical rating scale and had a respondent pool that included the temporarily unemployed, househusbands and wives, and those working more than 10 hours per week. In addition, the GSS framed the question of job satisfaction differently, asking how satisfied people were with the work they do, she maintained.

It’s a “nuance-y,” nitpicky, splitting-hairs distinction, she acknowledged, but an important one.

“When I think about the work I do, I think about my individual performance. If you ask me about my satisfaction with my job, I think about my co-workers, my boss, my pay, my benefits, my work/life balance.

“They are different questions, but they are different questions in a way that is crucial for HR executives because part of what we do is try to affect all the things about someone’s job that goes beyond [our] work.

“We’re working on wages, we’re working on flexible work/life balance … we’re working on talent management. They’re not part of the work I do … but [those things] are part of my job,” she said by way of example.

“If people are not increasingly dissatisfied with their own work but they are increasingly dissatisfied with their own job, that is something HR should sit up and take notice about,” Barrington told SHRM Online.

A nationwide Work Trends Survey by Rutgers University conducted mid-November 2009 with 652 workers also found a decline in worker job satisfaction in the past decade. In 1999, 59 percent said they were satisfied with their jobs vs. 49 percent in 2009.

The Rutgers report points out that in 1999 American workers “were brimming with confidence,” with seven in 10 saying 1999 was a good time to find a quality job. Almost two-thirds believed that they could land a comparable or better job if they wanted or needed to do so. By comparison, “today’s workers see a largely empty well.”

In addition to “a significant decline in overall job satisfaction and job security,” Rutgers found declines of about 10 percentage points in workers’ satisfaction with their income, health coverage, retirement and pensions, and their ability to balance work and family life.

“From 9/11 to surges in oil prices to bank failures to shocks on Wall Street and in the housing market, the American worker has had a rough decade,” says Rutgers professor Cliff Zukin, who co-directed the study, in the report.

“Taken as a whole, workers have little confidence in the American economy at the turn of a new decade.”

Dissatisfaction Precedes Recession

Worker dissatisfaction was sliding long before the worst economy since the Great Depression, The Conference Board reports in I Can’t Get No … Job Satisfaction, That Is: America’s Unhappy Workers.

While the economy is cyclical, this unhappiness is not, it says. The downturn crosses into every age and income group.

In its report, The Conference Board offers some possibilities for the dissatisfaction, including:

  • A drop in the rate that real average household incomes grew: a 0.2 percent decline since 2000 vs. 2.0 percent growth in the 1980s and 2.1 percent in the 1990s.
  • A downward trend in the percentage of workers receiving employer-provided health insurance in the 1980s; the same trend present today.
  • Three times as many workers receiving employer-provided health insurance have to contribute toward the cost of their coverage than in 1980, according to the BLS.

Another possibility is that the number of workers commuting more than an hour grew almost 5 percent from 1999 to 2007. However, The Conference Board’s own survey found the commute was workers’ most favorable aspect of their job.

The report suggested that the scant increase in paid vacations could be a contributor to worker dissatisfaction. Five years of service, for example, resulted in a paid leave increase of only three-fourths of a day: 13.1 days in 1988 vs. 13.8 days in 2007. However, other surveys show repeatedly that U.S. workers don’t use all of the vacation days they have.

Among the surprises in The Conference Board findings: Older workers, historically the most satisfied age group, were the most dissatisfied. The largest decline in overall job satisfaction—from 70.8 percent in 1987 to 43.4 percent in 2009—occurred among workers age 65 and older.

Shrugging off older workers’ dissatisfaction, thinking that they’ll retire soon anyway, would be short-sighted, Barrington suggests.

Older workers, she said, “have to be engaged in the legacy they leave behind, in the future success of a company they may or may not be with.”

That they are so dissatisfied is interesting, she says, because when workers are dissatisfied, it “makes it so much harder to do those soft things like transfer knowledge.”

Besides, “retirement-eligible does not mean retirement-prone,” she observed.

Dramatic Declines

The Conference Board found that workers’ dissatisfaction crosses four key engagement drivers—job design, organizational health, managerial quality and extrinsic rewards. The most dramatic aspects of declining job satisfaction, according to its report, showed up in:

  • Interest in their work. Satisfaction dropped 18.9 percentage points from 1987 to 2009.
  • Job security. Satisfaction dropped 16.5 percentage points from 1987 to 2009.
  • Interest in the people at work. Satisfaction dropped 11.6 percentage points from1987 to 2009.
  • Satisfaction with their supervisor. It dropped 9.5 percentage points from 1987 to 2009.

Barrington has only theories for the declining dissatisfaction. It could be that workers’ expectations on what constitutes job satisfaction have changed but that their experience has not. Or their standards for job satisfaction might have not changed but their experience has.

One thing that has changed: Expectations that employees take responsibility for their jobs and careers have increased.

“We know we are in a different regime than we were in the ‘80s, and there is a lot more responsibility [on employee shoulders]. We’ll give you a wellness program, but it’s your responsibility to join. We’ll give you tuition [reimbursement], but you’ve got to find the college course,” Barrington observed. “It’s hard to keep up managing our 401(k)s and our flexible spending accounts. … I’ve got flex hours, but I’ve got to make the case [to my supervisor].”

It all entails new responsibility, she noted.

Added to that responsibility is that “as individual employees we need to ask ourselves: Why am I less satisfied than I was 20 years ago, or [as] someone in my age group [was] 20 years ago?”

What’s an Employer to Do?

Job dissatisfaction is a red flag for HR, but only to the degree that it signals disengagement, Barrington said.

“You can have very sa​tisfied [employees] who are underperforming,” she pointed out.

However, job satisfaction is a factor in employee engagement, which affects retention of valued employees, productivity and a company’s bottom line, says Kathleen Dodaro. Dodaro is president of Dodaro & Associates HR Consulting in Colorado and was a speaker at the 2009 Society for Human Resource Management Staffing Management Conference.

“When [employees are] satisfied with their work, when they’re doing meaningful work, when we give them shared decision-making, we empower them. That creates employee engagement,” she said.

“There’s a lot of concern out there” among employees who come to work worried about cutbacks and layoffs, she pointed out. “If in the organization we can stifle that concern, we can be honest with them, [if] we can start talking to people and having focus groups and listening to their fears and concerns and answering those questions, they’re going to feel better about it and they’re going to be more motivated. It’s going to increase productivity.”

The Conference Board echoed the need for better communication, along with providing rotational and stretch assignments to revive workers’ flagging interest in their job, and the need for letting employees know that their work makes a difference in carrying out the organization’s mission.

HR should be in the forefront in helping their organizations design jobs that offer workers more flexibility, the report says.

After measuring the organization’s demographic and cultural profile, “HR should drive experimentation” and, where appropriate, “be more creative in coming up with a genuine menu of options” for flexible job design. Instead of changing hours, perhaps one option could be giving workers more autonomy for project deadlines.

HR could start small and experiment with flexibility within its own department, for example, picking an area where it can have departmental lessons learned, Barrington suggested.

“You’ve got HR [that] can always serve as a role model themselves,” she said.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at

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