Pandemic concerns, persistent inflation, burnout and more have wreaked havoc on employee well-being in recent years—but thanks to gains in pay, benefits and work/life balance, workers are actually happier than they have been in decades.
New data out from The Conference Board, a research organization, shows that overall job satisfaction among U.S. workers—particularly those who recently changed jobs—hit its highest levels on record last year. Overall, 62.3 percent of U.S. workers were satisfied in 2022—up from 60.2 percent in 2021 and 56.8 percent in 2020 and the highest level recorded since The Conference Board started conducting its annual job satisfaction survey in 1987.
"With unemployment at record lows, it's a seller's market for labor, and U.S. workers are reaping the rewards," said Eren Selcuk, senior economist at The Conference Board.
The Conference Board's annual survey, which asked workers about 26 components of their jobs, including work/life balance, health benefits, leave policies, retirement plans, workload and leadership—finds that every aspect of work has improved since the previous year's survey. The largest jump from 2021 to 2022 was work/life balance, which grew 5.8 percentage points to reach 60.1 percent in 2022.
Caitlin Duffy, director in the Gartner HR practice, said she's not surprised that job satisfaction has increased over the past few years, as the COVID-19 pandemic "had a seismic impact on the dynamics of the talent market."
"As organizations have shifted toward more remote-work models and adoption of hybrid/remote jobs became more mainstream, employees gained unprecedented access to expanded opportunities," she said. "Many were no longer constrained by geographic availability of open roles and had the freedom to pursue jobs in a wider range of locations, which increased the probability of finding a role that best fit their interests and preferences."
The data comes as employers make advances in efforts to boost employee satisfaction. Employees have reeled from social and health stressors in the past few years, and employers are working to keep them put as many employees left for other opportunities in 2021 and 2022.
In tandem with rising employee expectations, employers have turned to more mental health benefits, flexible schedules, remote work opportunities and bigger pay increases. Recent data from consulting firm Mercer, for instance, found that employers are shelling out bigger pay boosts to employees in 2023 than they have in years.
Allan Schweyer, principal researcher of human capital at The Conference Board, said the results "reveal that once workers are paid competitively, a strong workplace culture is the most important factor for keeping workers."
"Leaders gain the most by offering flexible, hybrid work arrangements and by emphasizing work experience and culture factors such as interesting work, reasonable workloads and opportunities for career growth," he said.
However, The Conference Board's survey reveals a significant happiness gap between men and women in the workplace. Women are significantly less satisfied than men across almost all 26 job satisfaction components surveyed, with large gaps appearing in job security, promotion policy, bonus plans, and compensation and benefits, including pay, sick day policy, vacation policy and health plans. This means, the report's authors wrote, that "firms need to be more conscious and intentional about achieving pay equity and addressing gender gaps across numerous other factors of satisfaction."
Some of the findings from The Conference Board appear to be good news for organizations—but they run in contrast to other recent reports. Benefits firm MetLife, in its annual employee benefits report out in March, found that while overall job satisfaction increased year over year to 69 percent in 2023 from 66 percent in 2022, job satisfaction registered its second-lowest score in a decade. MetLife also found that employees' satisfaction with their benefits fell to 61 percent in 2023, down from 64 percent in 2022, reaching its lowest point in the past decade. MetLife's survey of some 2,840 benefits leaders and 2,884 full-time employees also revealed sharp declines in employees' overall well-being, particularly in financial and mental health.
Missy Plohr-Memming, senior vice president for national accounts sales and group benefits at MetLife, told SHRM Online in March that one likely reason for the decline in benefits and jobs satisfaction is higher employee expectations in the wake of significant financial and mental health struggles. "While employers have made efforts to expand their benefits offerings, they simply have not been able to meet employees' evolving expectations quickly enough," she said.
Job changes may account for some of the stark difference. The Conference Board, in its findings, highlighted and surveyed workers who switched jobs recently. Workers who voluntarily left their organizations and found new jobs since the pandemic began were the most satisfied among all workers, the survey found.
Compared to workers who had not left for another job, workers who had recently moved to another organization experienced significantly higher satisfaction—a difference in the double digits in percentage points—in aspects such as pay, bonuses, educational and job training programs, and mental health benefits. That's likely a result of the tight labor market, which has left employees able to leave for higher pay, better perks and more desired working arrangements.
Record-high inflation is leaving the majority of employees dissatisfied with their pay despite rising salaries, Duffy noted, so it makes sense that some employees who left for a significant pay boost at other organizations might feel more satisfied with their jobs.
It's also important to note that The Conference Board survey of 1,680 workers was conducted in November 2022. Since that time, layoffs and benefits cuts have been become increasingly common as recession fears grow.
"Looking ahead, the short recession that many anticipate in 2023 may temporarily ease labor shortages," The Conference Board's report noted. "We see some signs of softening labor markets with job openings and voluntary quits declining over the last few months after record highs in March 2022. Declining worker mobility could reduce job satisfaction in the coming 12 to 24 months. In the medium and long term, however, changing demographics and restricted immigration will likely expand skill and talent shortages."