Job Satisfaction

Job satisfaction refers to the overall feelings one has and the evaluation one makes about one’s job. People with high job satisfaction experience a pleasurable or positive emotional state when they think about their job or job experiences. In simple terms, they like their jobs. Since early studies in the 1930s, job satisfaction has become one of the most widely investigated concepts in the field of industrial/organizational psychology. It is a valuable outcome in its own right but also a driver of other important individual and organizational outcomes. The importance of this concept is reflected in its central role in numerous theories, such as those concerning job design, leadership, and employee withdrawal.

Defining and Measuring Job Satisfaction

Job satisfaction is traditionally defined as a pleasurable or positive emotional state that results from one’s appraisal of one’s job or job aspects. This definition includes both one’s affective reactions to one’s job (feelings) and one’s cognitive evaluation of the job (thoughts). There is controversy about whether job satisfaction should be considered as the interplay of both one’s thoughts and feelings, as implied in this definition, or whether the cognitive and affective aspects should be separated into distinct dimensions. Those advocating the latter approach cite studies showing that cognitively oriented measures of job satisfaction predict different behaviors to affect-based measures of job satisfaction.

Although the definition of job satisfaction is in some dispute, both sides agree on the need to align the measurement of job satisfaction with the definition. Defining job satisfaction as, say, an affective response but assessing it as an evaluation leads to confusion. A further issue to consider when measuring job satisfaction is its focus. One can assess how satisfied one is with one’s job as a whole, or one’s global feeling about the job. A typical question would be: “Overall, how much enjoyment do you find in your work?” An alternative to this global approach is to assess and sum up satisfaction with facets of the job, such as satisfaction with one’s pay, one’s colleagues, the nature of the work, and the supervision. Research shows that overall global satisfaction is something different from a combination of facet satisfactions. Moreover, satisfactions with different facets are often not highly related. For example, one can be very satisfied with colleagues but highly dissatisfied with promotion prospects. If one is trying to understand the overall effect of jobs, then global ratings are usually the best choice. However, a facet approach is more diagnostic if the assessor wants to know how to improve satisfaction in a particular situation.

Causes of Job Satisfaction

There are three well-recognized general causes of job satisfaction: the situation, the person, and the interaction between the situation and the person.

Situational Causes

By far the greatest attention has been given to situational influences on job satisfaction. An early theory of situational influences was Frederick Herzberg’s two-factor theory, which proposed that intrinsic job factors such as the work itself (motivators) caused satisfaction, whereas extrinsic “hygiene” factors external to the job (e.g., pay) caused dissatisfaction. Although appealing, this theory has not stood the test of time. In fact, both types of factors contribute to both job satisfaction and job dissatisfaction.

A more enduring theory that focuses on situational causes of job satisfaction is the job characteristics model (JCM). This model proposes that there are certain intrinsically motivating features of a job that lead to job satisfaction as well as other positive work outcomes. The theory focuses on five work characteristics:

  • Task identity: degree to which one can see one’s work from beginning to end
  • Task significance: degree to which one’s work is seen as important and significant
  • Skill variety: extent to which job allows employees to do different tasks
  • Autonomy: degree to which employees have control and discretion for how to conduct their job
  • Feedback: degree to which the work itself provides feedback for how the employee is performing the job

According to the theory, and as subsequently demonstrated in both meta-analyses and rigorous longitudinal field studies, jobs that are enriched to provide these core characteristics are more satisfying and motivating than jobs that do not provide these characteristics.

A theory that has parallels with the JCM is the demand-control model of strain, which proposes that job demands and job control work together to affect job strains, including dissatisfaction. There is good evidence that people are more satisfied if they have jobs with high control and with moderate levels of demands. However, there is mixed support for the more specific “buffering” hypothesis that has often been articulated in accounts of this model, which holds that job control reduces the dissatisfying effects of high demands. This is a compelling proposition, because it implies one can increase job demands without detriment to employee well-being so long as employees also have high control.

Practically, the implication of both the JCM and the demand-control models is that one can improve job satisfaction by changing job characteristics, or job redesign. For example, job enlargement involves expanding the variety of tasks associated with a particular job; job enrichment involves increasing the level of autonomy in a job, such as by allowing individuals to make decisions previously made by supervisors; and introducing self-managing teams involves increasing autonomy for a team of individuals, such as by allowing the group to allocate tasks among themselves.

The JCM and the demand-control model both focus on the influence of core intrinsic job characteristics, and evidence generally shows that it is the nature of work itself that most affects job satisfaction. However, job satisfaction and dissatisfaction are also affected by other work experiences, such as exposure to sexual harassment and injustice, career development opportunities, constraints that inhibit performance (e.g., malfunctioning equipment), clarity about roles, conflicting role expectations, difficulties arising from juggling work and family responsibilities, and the presence of supportive leadership. Interestingly, the amount an individual is paid has little influence on job satisfaction, although the perceived fairness of that level of pay can be very important. Group-level job characteristics (such as how much control the team has) and organizational-level characteristics (such as the overall culture) can also affect job satisfaction. At an even higher level of analysis, cultural factors also appear to affect job satisfaction, although we currently know relatively little about what causes differences in job satisfaction across countries.

Personal Causes

Job satisfaction also depends on people’s temperaments and personalities. For example, some individuals will be dissatisfied with their jobs no matter what the nature of their work. This idea was introduced in the 1930s when an early study suggested job dissatisfaction might be the product of nonadjustive emotional tendencies, but the idea then lay dormant until recently.

In the past few decades, two broad approaches to the investigation of dispositional sources of job satisfaction have emerged. The first, an indirect approach, shows that job satisfaction scores can be quite stable over long periods of time (e.g., 5 years), even when individuals change employers and occupations. The implication is that stable individual differences in personality cause the long-term consistency in job satisfaction. However, the problem with this approach is that other factors might cause this stability. For example, some people might consistently choose good jobs, and some people might always choose bad jobs, resulting in stable levels of job satisfaction over time.

A second and more direct approach is to relate dispositional variables to job satisfaction, thereby providing insight into what personality traits might be important. One such trait is affective disposition. Individuals high in positive affectivity (who are prone to describe themselves as cheerful, enthusiastic, confident, and active) tend to experience high job satisfaction, whereas those high in negative affectivity (who are prone to experience negative mood states such as anxiety, depression, and guilt) tend to report low job satisfaction. For example, one’s positive or negative affectivity in teenage years can predict job satisfaction at 54 to 62 years of age. Individuals who are emotionally stable with high levels of general self-confidence and feelings of positive self-worth (referred to as a positive core self-evaluation) also tend to experience higher job satisfaction than those who have a more negative core view of themselves.

Recent research has tackled the question of why these personality characteristics affect job satisfaction. For example, some evidence suggests that individuals who have a positive view of themselves tend to seek out and obtain more enriched and satisfying jobs. Individuals might also interpret job circumstances differently according to their disposition. For example, individuals high in negative affectivity might have a higher threshold for perceiving and responding to positive stimuli.

In addition to personality or disposition as causes of job satisfaction, researchers have sought to understand whether demographic variables have a role. Although the findings are inconclusive for gender and race, there is good evidence that general job satisfaction increases with age, with some studies suggesting a tail-off after about 45 years of age. This age effect might be because older workers have developed more realistic expectations about work, or because they have more skills than younger workers and therefore are able to obtain better jobs.

Person X Situation Causes

Several theories propose that job satisfaction derives from the interaction between the person and the situation. For example, the job characteristics model proposes that job enrichment is more strongly related to job satisfaction for individuals who prefer challenge and interest in their job. There is reasonable support for this proposition.

A further example of an interactive theory is the Cornell model, which proposes that job satisfaction is highest when individuals receive a high level of outputs from their job (e.g., pay, status, working conditions) relative to their inputs into the work role (e.g., time and effort). The model recognizes that the value an individual places on inputs and outputs can affect this equation. For example, if unemployment is high, and hence there is high competition for scarce jobs, individuals will see their inputs as less valuable. All else being equal, they are therefore likely to report greater job satisfaction. The value-percept theory is another interactive approach that has generally been supported. This theory proposes that individuals are likely to be satisfied if the things they find important (their values) are fulfilled. In other words, discrepancies between what is desired and received are dissatisfying only if the job facet is important to the individual.

Outcomes of Job Satisfaction

Job satisfaction is often seen as an important outcome in its own right. From a social and humanitarian perspective, there is obvious value in having a society in which people have positive views about their work and feel they are treated with dignity and respect. After all, individuals spend up to one third of their waking hours in the workplace. In addition, however, job satisfaction can affect important personal and organizational outcomes. Some of the most well-established ones are discussed next.

Life Satisfaction and Health

For a small number of individuals, job and life experiences are segmented and have little effect on each other. For an even smaller group, the compensation model applies, meaning that individuals seek to compensate for a dissatisfying job by looking for fulfillment outside of work. For most individuals (around 70%), however, job experiences spill over and affect their lives more broadly. This spillover model is supported by evidence that job satisfaction has a moderately strong positive correlation with one’s overall life satisfaction. It seems that how one feels and/or thinks about one’s job tends to affect how one feels and/or thinks more broadly. The reverse is also true: One’s broader life satisfaction can affect job satisfaction.

In terms of health, there are clear links between job satisfaction and mental health, such as depression and burnout. Burnout is a distressed emotional state experienced on the job, such as feeling emotionally exhausted and feeling a reduced sense of personal accomplishment. Job dissatisfaction has also been associated with physical symptoms such as headaches, although the methodological limitations of most studies in this area (e.g., an overreliance on self-reported assessments of health) preclude any conclusion about causality at this stage.

Job Performance and Other Important Organizational Behaviors

It is intuitively appealing to believe that the happy worker is also a productive one. However, in the mid-1980s, a very influential meta-analysis of the literature suggested a relatively low correlation (.17) between job satisfaction and performance. At this point, the effect of job satisfaction on performance appeared trivial.

More recent evidence challenges this conclusion. First, job satisfaction has been shown to be more strongly predictive of performance when organizational citizenship behaviors are included as part of performance. Organizational citizenship behaviors are voluntary acts to help coworkers and employers. It makes sense that individuals who are happy and satisfied at work are more likely to engage in such voluntary behaviors. Second, a more recent and rigorous meta-analysis of correlations between job satisfaction and individual performance showed a moderate-sized correlation between these variables (.30), which was even higher for complex jobs. It is likely that more complex jobs allow individuals more autonomy and latitude to act on their satisfaction. Third, studies conducted at the organizational level of analysis (which, for example, compare the average satisfaction of a company and its performance with the average satisfaction and performance of other companies) also suggest a positive and nontrivial relationship between job satisfaction and organizational performance indicators such as market share and profit.

In addition to job satisfaction promoting positive work behaviors, there is evidence that job dissatisfaction promotes negative behaviors within organizations. Thus, dissatisfied employees are more likely than satisfied employees to engage in counterproductive acts in organizations (e.g., theft, aggression, sabotage), particularly if they believe they have low control at work. Dissatisfied employees are also more likely to engage in withdrawal—that is, job avoidance behaviors such as quitting, coming in late, or being absent. It appears individuals will seek to escape a dissatisfying job and that if they can’t escape permanently by leaving the job entirely, then they will escape temporarily by being late or being absent. The evidence is particularly strong that dissatisfied individuals are more likely to leave their job altogether, especially if there are alternatives (e.g., if unemployment is low, individuals are more likely to leave their job if they are dissatisfied than they are when unemployment is high).

The relationship between job satisfaction and absence is smaller and more inconsistent, despite the fact that job satisfaction features prominently in theories of absence. In part, this weaker relationship reflects the fact that people are absent for many reasons (e.g., illness, sick children), and it also reflects methodological challenges (e.g., often there are a few employees with very high absence rates, which affects the statistical distribution of absence). Recent evidence shows that job satisfaction is most likely to predict withdrawal when the various behaviors are considered together as part of a pattern, rather than when focusing on any single indicator of withdrawal.

Summary

How much we like our jobs—our job satisfaction—is a critical concept in the study of work. Job satisfaction is likely to result in a number of positive benefits, both for individuals (their well-being, mental health, and life satisfaction) and for organizations (better performance, more citizenship, less counterproductive behavior, and less withdrawal). Importantly, job satisfaction can be changed. Even though our job satisfaction is in part a product of who we are, regardless of our job or work situation, our job satisfaction is also significantly affected by the work situation. In many instances, the work environment can and should be changed, such as by reducing excess workload, increasing levels of job autonomy, or introducing practices to reduce home-work conflict. Such change initiatives are especially likely to be successful in raising job satisfaction if one takes into account individual values and personality in this process.

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