Wednesday, November 16, 2016
It surprises me that we spend so much time working – many of us in jobs we don't much enjoy – but are more inclined to seek escape from our work in fiction, or by following the adventures of celebrities such as Trump, than to think about how we could get more satisfaction from all that heads-down time.
It's not a subject of interest to our politicians nor, I fear, many of the bosses we do the work for.
Yet the fact is that psychologists – and even the odd economist – know a lot about what makes some jobs more satisfying than others.
Research published in 2014 by the British Cabinet Office examined the life satisfaction of people working in 274 occupations.
The 10 occupations seeming to yield the greatest satisfaction were, from the top: clergy, chief executives, farm managers, company secretaries, quality assurance regulators, health care practice managers, doctors, farmers, owners and managers of hotels and accommodation, and skilled metal, electrical and electronic trade supervisors.
The 10 occupations seeming to yield the least satisfaction were, from the bottom: plastics process operatives, bar staff, care escorts, sports assistants, telephone sales people, floor and wall tilers, industrial cleaners, debt and rent collectors, low-skilled construction workers and pub owners and managers.
From a quick squiz, it seems the most satisfying jobs tend to be better paid than the least satisfying. (With clergy as an obvious exception. If my dad's pay was any guide, revs aren't rolling in it.)
But if you conclude from this that finding a high-paying job is the best path to a satisfying job you've got the wrong end of the stick.
No, the clearer distinction between the two groups is that the most satisfied tend to be more highly skilled than the least satisfied.
As a rule, work skills tend to be scarce, with employers' demand for them stronger than workers' ability to supply.
So it's reasonable to infer that acquiring skills for which there's strong employer demand is a safe path to a high-paid job.
But there's another distinction between the two groups that does most to explain the satisfaction difference: the most satisfied are nearer the top of the heap, whereas the least satisfied are near the bottom.
It's nice to have status – people treat you with more respect. And it's nicer to do the bossing than to be bossed.
The psychologists will tell you, however, that the most important thing in job satisfaction is personal autonomy: having a degree of freedom in the way you do your job.
Feeling that, at least to some extent, you're controlling the system rather than the system controlling you.
These things take you a long way towards having a sense that you're achieving something. And that's another characteristic of satisfying work the psychologists have identified.
A third characteristic is a degree of complexity and variety. It's obvious enough that we like a bit of variety in our jobs rather than repeating the same tasks day in, day out.
Less obvious is that we like jobs that present us with a challenge – provided it's a challenge we can meet. Jobs that demand the impossible aren't satisfying, but nor is a job that's so easy it's a bore.
One of my favourite websites, PsyBlog, run by the British psychologist Dr Jeremy Dean, nominates a fourth "key to job satisfaction": fair pay.
Note, not high pay, but fair pay. How much is fair? This is the bit so many employers don't get in their fashionable preoccupation with performance pay and bonuses linked to KPIs (if you don't know what those letters stand for, think yourself lucky).
Fair pay is pay that's the same as received by people you consider your equal. We accept that people with more responsibility than us should get more, but we get twitchy when we know or suspect the boss is playing favourites among our peers.
It's clear bosses could do a lot to improve the satisfaction of their troops by avoiding favouritism, giving people at every level a little more freedom and flexibility, treating people lower down with more consideration and respect, and doing more to get individuals into the jobs their personal characteristics make them more suited to.
Dumb bosses live in fear that treating their staff well would allow them to slacken off. The KPI craze is intended to oblige people to work harder, but also to control more narrowly the way they do their jobs.
KPIs should come with a safety warning: careful what you wish for. They invite staff to turn off their brains – just as soon as they've figured out what aspects of their job they can neglect so as to ensure they always hit their targets.
Smart bosses know that treating their workers well, giving them discretion and encouraging them to keep their brains on pays off in greater effort and loyalty, as well as reducing staff turnover, recruitment and initiation costs.
If you don't have the good fortune to work for a smart boss you can use what wriggle room you can manage to make your job more challenging and psychologically rewarding. Failing that, find a better boss.