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This chapter is from the book

What People Actually Say About Work

Employee surveys regularly ask people specifically how they feel about the kind of work they do, as opposed to other aspects of their employment, such as pay or the relationship with their supervisors. Our job satisfaction "norm" is 76 percent. This means that, on average, 76 percent of all workers across all the organizations surveyed generally enjoy the work they do. Although a 76-percent average satisfaction rate may not approach unanimity (although it would be considered a landslide in an election), it appears to belie the notion that work for most employees is somehow intrinsically unsatisfying, or "dehumanizing."

Contrary to the variety of unsupported theories about worker attitudes, such as the GenX and job-enrichment fads, we find that the overall satisfaction of workers with the type of work they do is strong and constant over a wide variety of industries and occupations. For example, on the high end, the job-satisfaction figure for healthcare and hospital workers is 79 percent. At the low end is the job satisfaction of oil and gas workers, which is at 71 percent. That's not much of a difference. Management across all industries is a bit more positive than non-management (83 percent versus 74 percent on the average), and the higher the management level, the more positive; non-management professionals (such as engineers, accountants, and salespeople) have a slightly higher satisfaction rate than other salaried employees (such as clerical workers) who, in turn, are higher than hourly (mostly blue-collar) employees. But 72 percent of hourly employees are still positive! Therefore, the percentage of people satisfied with their work is high for every group; most of the remaining employees are neutral, and a small percentage express dissatisfaction. The differences among the various groups are small and, by and large, in line with what you might expect.

Also, there is no evidence that younger workers are more (or less) disenchanted than their elders. Although individuals are rarely asked to state their age in surveys, we do obtain data on tenure, which is a reasonable surrogate measure. Racial and gender differences are also small or nonexistent, as are those by regions of the world. (North America and Europe are the two regions for which we have sufficient data.) Appendix C, "Job Satisfaction: Demographic, Occupational, and Regional Breaks," details the job-satisfaction data for the various demographic, occupational, and regional groups.

Our results on job satisfaction may seem counterintuitive to those unfamiliar with employee attitude survey findings. However, as noted in the Introduction (and summarized in Appendix D, "Comparisons with Other Norms"), our data are similar to those collected by other researchers. Furthermore, going back to 1972 when Sirota Consulting began its surveys, we find hardly any change at all. The average level of job satisfaction on our surveys in 1972–1982 was 73 percent and in 1983–1993 it was 79 percent.

If, contrary to popular social myth, people generally like the work they do, why is it that some workers nonetheless appear more highly motivated than others, that workforces in some companies routinely perform better than others, and that workers are often unmotivated to do their jobs well, despite apparently liking what they do? In other words, if people generally like the work they do, why are they often unhappy with their work situations? Are they being irrational? What accounts for this apparent disparity?

Let's Ask

What can you learn by asking workers about their goals and views in a simple and direct way? First, that identifying what most motivates employees—such as the work itself—is a waste of time. The vast majority of employees want a lot of things "most." Indeed, it is a psychological illness to want just one thing, such as money to the exclusion of everything else, or affection to the point that one is willing to sacrifice anything for it, including fair compensation for one's labor.

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