• 02 Apr 2010
  • What Do You Think?

Why Are Fewer and Fewer U.S. Employees Satisfied With Their Jobs?

This month's column yielded many hypotheses to explain why U.S. employees' job satisfaction is at a 23-year low, says HBS professor Jim Heskett. Readers also offered antidotes to job malaise. (Online forum now closed. New forum begins May 5.)
by Jim Heskett

Summing Up

Are there too many "hostages" in the work force? Before turning to responses to this month's column, let me note that this marks the tenth anniversary of "What Do You Think?" I want to thank all of you for sharing your views on the 120 different topics that we've covered together during that time, especially several of you who have responded to more than half of the topics (and to C. J. Cullinane who has offered views on nearly every one).

This month's column yielded many hypotheses to explain why U.S. employees' job satisfaction is at a 23-year low. Charles Wegrzyn cited (1) "incredible pressure from the economic side," (2) "incredible instability," and (3) a resulting "dog-eat-dog attitude." Dennis Hopwood said, "In the end, it's all about making the numbers." Akhil Aggarwal mentioned "Lack of personalized focus on employees and more on business and profitability." Phil Clark posited that knowledge work that deals with intangible results and hard-to-pinpoint accomplishments "just isn't as satisfying" as work used to be. John Alexander said, "When workers see senior management face no responsibility for poor performance and continue to get highly paid, it's no wonder there is widespread dissatisfaction." E. Shields stated that it may be the result of disappointed expectations: "People believe that their work should allow them to use their special talents in the way that they most want to. This is a beautiful dream, but I believe it sets people up to be unhappy."

Several antidotes to general job dissatisfaction were offered. C. J. Cullinane suggested "spending a bit more time" providing reassurance to employees that the "organization will not only survive but will grow" as well as providing "pertinent training or cross-training." Kamil Gupta described a situation in which camaraderie resulted from everyone agreeing to take a pay cut, with leaders accepting the largest cut. Other creative responses involved "green" sustainability. Narasimhan Gopalan cited "special programs to engage the employees to contribute towards green initiatives at different levels." David Cawlfield stressed the need for "employees (to) identify with the value of the (green) initiatives (that may seem to take precedence over their own needs)." Mark Isaac pointed out that "Succession plans, open communication, and knowing that the company cares, create a learning environment."

Gerald Nanninga's reference to findings of the biennial Global Workforce Study by Towers Watson suggested one additional reason for low job satisfaction among those surveyed in The Conference Board survey. More than half, Nanninga reports, said "there were no career advancement opportunities in their current roles," but "81 percent of respondents said they are not actively looking for another job." As Joyce Dias puts it, "People give up what they enjoy doing most in order to submit to the unnatural process of doing something— anything in order to earn their living." Combine this with research that cites a high correlation between job satisfaction and control over one's work and you come up with a possible conclusion that many employees regard themselves as "hostages" to jobs that offer no career advancement. This triggers the question, "Are there too many 'hostages' in the work force?" What do you think?

Original Article

Two items caught my eye this month. I'm wondering whether they have anything to do with one another. The first is a news release from The Conference Board reporting that its most recent periodic poll showed that only 45 percent of workers in the U.S. were satisfied with their jobs, the lowest level in the 23-year history of the poll—this in an era in which we are told that jobs are being enhanced by information technology.

The second is an article by Jeffrey Pfeffer pointing out the prevalence of "green" initiatives by business organizations. Invariably these initiatives are associated with saving the external environment. Pfeffer asks why, in the face of the evidence of its importance, do so few of these initiatives involve the sustainability of workers in these same organizations? Citing Wal-Mart and BP, he maintains that the same organizations that are lauded for their efforts to sustain the external environment are, at the same time, exercising cost-cutting efforts (such as low wages, poor benefits, no health insurance for many employees in the case of Wal-Mart, fines for safety violations in the case of BP) in dealing with their employees.

Pfeffer cites a large body of epidemiological and public health research that suggests that an organization's practices have profound effects on the health of its employees. A large body of research offers evidence of the following: (1) Organizations implementing health and wellness programs for their employees realize significant cost savings through reduced disability expenses, (2) Health insurance affects health status positively, (3) Layoffs are harmful to everything from mental and physical well-being to work behavior, (4) Work schedules and length of hours affect physical well-being and family relationships, both of which can have positive or negative effects on productivity, (5) Job design that allows employees to have control over their work is conducive to lower stress levels and better health outcomes (for example, the higher one rises in an organization, the lower the risk of cardiovascular problems), and (6) Policies that promote inequality in income and education can, by extension, lead to poor health outcomes.

Much of the research that does explore the impact of organizational practice focuses on outcomes such as cost and profitability. For example, satisfied, engaged employees have been found to be more productive, a finding that essentially treats them as means to an end. Why is that? Among other things, Pfeffer speculates that one reason is that we assume correctly that polar bears can't do much to affect their own well-being. Humans, on the other hand, can take steps to improve theirs. As a result, to varying degrees around the world, we adopt a "laissez faire" attitude toward issues of human sustainability. Does this help explain the findings of The Conference Board?

Has concern about the sustainability of our environment taken precedent over issues associated with sustaining organizations? Or are we just revisiting age-old issues with new vocabulary? Would more than 1.3 million Wal-Mart employees worldwide see this issue the same way as those who assume what's good for them? Why are fewer and fewer employees satisfied with their jobs, in spite of the adoption of information technology that should make them more interesting? What kinds of responses, if any, are called for? What do you think?

To read more:

The Conference Board, "U.S. Job Satisfaction at Lowest Level in Two Decades," January 5, 2010.

Jeffrey Pfeffer, "Building Sustainable Organizations: The Human Factor," Academy of Management Perspectives, February, 2010, pp. 34-45.