Miserable at Work? You're Not Alone

by Laura Rowley

Job satisfaction in America hit a record low in 2009, according to a survey released this week by the Conference Board -- with only 45 percent of workers reporting contentment with their jobs.

Clearly, the economic downturn is partly to blame. Workers have lost their jobs and taken less fulfilling, lower-paid positions. They've had to pick up the slack when colleagues were laid off, managing bigger workloads with no pay increase. They've had hours cut and benefits such as 401(k) matches dropped.

But job satisfaction among all age and income groups has been on a consistent downward trend since 1987, when the Conference Board began tracking the numbers.

"What we've seen over last 22 years is that irrespective of whether the economy is boom or bust, the overall level of satisfaction expressed by U.S. workers has been steadily declining across every single aspect of the job," says Lynn Franco, director of the Conference Board's Consumer Research Center and author of the report.

Those aspects include wages, benefits, job security, promotion policies, bonus plans, work load, work-life balance, communication, potential for growth and recognition, among other components of the job.

What's Going On?

Part of the problem is that people feel they can't get ahead, Franco notes. Household incomes, adjusted for inflation, have stagnated since 2000. Meanwhile, out-of-pocket costs for health insurance have risen sharply: The average annual worker contributions for single and family coverage more than doubled over the last decade, to $779 and $3,515 respectively, according to a 2009 Kaiser Family Foundation report.

"The shifting of health-care costs from employer to employee and the fact that wages haven't been growing all that rapidly means purchasing power is diminishing," says Franco. At the same time, workers operate "in a 24/7 environment where pressures and stresses are greater."

People may be opting for the better-paid but less-rewarding gigs just to keep pace with the cost of living, says Cornell economist Robert Frank, author of "Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class."

"If you hold a person's skills and experience constant, there will be spectrum of jobs, and the ones that pay more will have less desirable working conditions: less autonomy, more risk, less variety in the workday" -- a concept known as compensating wage differentials, says Frank. "The economic logic is you can't get people to accept those jobs unless they pay more. If people are feeling more (economic) pressure, they are more willing to sacrifice other dimensions of job satisfaction in order to get more money." (And a range of studies shows that making money a primary goal can lead to unhappiness.)

Part of the problem is the rise of an uber-class over the last three decades, which has influenced both the costs and aspirations of those of us who are, well, less uber, Frank says. The top 10 percent -- households earning more than $100,000 -- collected 48.5 percent of all reported income in 2005, up from 33 percent in the 1970s and the largest share since just before the Great Depression. The top 1 percent garnered 22 percent of all reported income -- double the share they received in 1980.

"People who are taking higher-paying jobs because they are have a hard time making ends meet aren't have a hard time making ends meet by accident," Frank suggests. "It's because to send your kid to an average school you have to match what people like you spend on houses. If they are spending more than they used to, then so do you."

For instance, housing costs for families with children have risen 100 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars since 1970, according to Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Warren, author of "The Two-Income Trap."

The theory that workers are choosing finances over fulfillment seems to be reflected in the Conference Board's findings: Half of employees don't feel engaged in their work -- another record low.

Hurting Productivity

On the other hand, some experts suggest the discontent is a function of a more professional and specialized workplace.

"You have more and more employees doing fragmented tasks, and we know that in order to experience work as meaningful you need to see the end results," says Adam Grant, a management professor at University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business.

"A related issue is the lack of connection to a real outcome for the end users -- clients, customers, patients, etc.," Grant explains. "As the world globalizes, and companies begin to do more outsourcing and more international work, they are using more 24-hour communication and technology to make it easier to get jobs done without a face-to-face connection with the people benefiting from the work you do."

In addition, new competitive demands may be frustrating workers. "As organizations become faster and flatter hierarchically, it becomes more necessary to depend on employees for generating new ideas," says Grant. "Although it's nice in terms of giving them autonomy and the ability to contribute in new ways, it makes it harder to specify the job description. It can be quite stressful not knowing what your core responsibilities are or what supervisors are expecting of you."

In studying these innovations, Grant has found supervisors "tended not to give enough credit for the initiative workers were taking," he says. "Anything you can do that helps the company succeed has become part of your expected performance, instead of saying, 'you really went above and beyond and let's recognize and reward that.'"

That trend can be problematic, especially for younger workers. The Conference Board found people under 25 are the most miserable -- about two-thirds are dissatisfied with their jobs -- the highest level ever recorded for that age cohort.

"The Millennial Generation is entering the workforce with expectations higher than any generations before them," Grant says. "This generation is not accustomed to delaying gratification. They are interested in getting rewarded and succeeding very quickly, and most organizations aren't set up to do this. You could expect a decline in satisfaction for that reason."

But Baby Boomers are also disenchanted, Franco says, and that can impair the transfer of knowledge between generations that keeps a workplace humming -- and has larger implications for U.S. productivity.

"A dissatisfied worker is not going to be as productive as one who is satisfied and engaged, and that spills over into bottom line and the economy as a whole," she says.


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