Work represents an important — and time consuming — part of life for most adults. As a result, it is important for researchers and employers to gain a better understanding of the factors that contribute to employee well-being. Such knowledge can form the basis for organizational practices intended to improve workers’ lives. Researchers have often equated employee well-being with job satisfaction. But what is job satisfaction, and what does well-being research show about what factors may lead people to enjoy their jobs?
Job Satisfaction as an Indicator of Employee Well-Being
Industrial-organizational (I-O) psychologists have typically assessed employee well-being using measures of job satisfaction — the extent to which an employee generally likes his or her job. Researchers have typically assessed job satisfaction using self-report items, such as “All in all I am satisfied with my job” and “In general, I like working here.” Since the 1930s, I-O psychologists have published thousands of studies examining the potential causes of job satisfaction. Scientific interest in job satisfaction still persists today. One reason for this sustained research attention is that studies have repeatedly found that satisfied employees generally outperform their dissatisfied coworkers. This finding alone gives employers ample reason to support job satisfaction research.
Factors that Influence Job Satisfaction
Studies have examined dozens of potential influences on job satisfaction. These potential causes can be grouped into two broad categories: (1) personal qualities of employees and (2) qualities of the work environment.
Personal qualities of employees: Several studies have found that employees’ enduring personal qualities (e.g., personality traits) may predispose them to be either satisfied or dissatisfied with their jobs. This research, for instance, has found that a person’s job satisfaction level is stable across time and across changes in work assignments, that heredity may influence job satisfaction, and that specific personality traits (e.g., extraversion and emotional stability) are related to job satisfaction. Fortunately for dissatisfied workers, the effects of personal qualities are generally modest, thus leaving open the possibility that workers can enhance their job satisfaction by changing some conditions of their work environments.
Qualities of the work environment: Several aspects of the work environment have been linked to job satisfaction, including (1) job complexity, (2) stressful working conditions, (3) interpersonal treatment at work, and (4) pay level.
Job complexity: The tasks required by some jobs are more complex than those required by others. The job tasks performed by neurosurgeons, for instance, are generally more complex than those performed by mail clerks. Researchers have identified several qualities that determine the complexity of a given job. Complex jobs, for example, require employees to use a variety of different skills, and they allow employees control over how they do their work. Research has consistently found that employees performing complex jobs express higher levels of job satisfaction than do employees performing simple jobs. Complex jobs may be more satisfying because they fulfill a person’s fundamental needs for autonomy and competence.
Stressful working conditions: Research on stressful working conditions (i.e., “stressors”) has found that uncertainty about one’s work responsibilities, having conflicting work responsibilities, and having too many work responsibilities all predict lower job satisfaction.
Research has also examined organizational constraints — a set of stressors reflecting the extent to which a person’s working conditions interfere with effective job performance — as predictors of job satisfaction (Spector & Jex, 1998). Examples of organizational constraints include having inadequate training, supplies, or equipment to successfully complete work assignments. Research consistently finds that the more organizational constraints people have at work, the lower job satisfaction they experience.
Other studies have examined work-family conflict as predictors of job satisfaction. Work-family conflict occurs when a person’s work life and family life are incompatible with each other. Such incompatibility occurs, for instance, when work duties prevent a person from performing his or her family duties (for example, when working in the evening prevents a parent from attending a child’s school function). It can also occur when family duties prevent an employee from performing his or her work duties (for instance, when an employee is absent from work in order to care for an ill spouse). Both forms of work-family conflict predict lower job satisfaction.
Interpersonal treatment at work: Several forms of interpersonal treatment can occur within the workplace. Some forms of interpersonal treatment are helpful (e.g., social support); others are harmful (bullying). Not surprisingly, helpful interpersonal treatment predicts greater job satisfaction, whereas harmful interpersonal treatment predicts lower job satisfaction. These relationships may occur because interpersonal treatment influences the fulfillment of the fundamental human need for good relationships with others.
Pay level: Research has repeatedly shown that the amount a person is paid has a positive — though modest — relationship with job satisfaction (Judge, Piccolo, Podsakoff, Shaw, & Rich, 2010). Such relationships may occur because salary levels provide workers with concrete signals about their competence.
Collectively, research examining the qualities of the work environment paint an optimistic picture about the ability of employers to improve their workers’ job satisfaction levels. Collectively, each of the work environment variables discussed here can be addressed by organizational policies and practices. Employers, for instance, can make work tasks more satisfying by redesigning jobs to be more complex, they can train managers to model supportive interpersonal behavior, and they can introduce family-friendly policies designed to prevent work-family conflict.
Nathan A. Bowling, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Wright State University.
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December 20, 2018