Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Why Reported Job Satisfaction is a Poor Guide to Job Quality in Britain

The much-publicised and much-criticised rise of zero-hours contracts has raised wider questions about the quality of work life in Britain. These contracts have been viewed by many as a sign of the precariousness of work faced by many workers. The broader concern is that workplaces in Britain are characterised by fear and loathing; they are inhabited by discontented and unfulfilled workers.

This concern though is not necessarily backed up by all available data. Some evidence suggests that most workers in Britain, far from facing real hardships, are enjoying the work they do. This evidence drawn from the British Household Panel Survey suggests that by far the majority of British workers are “somewhat, mostly or completed satisfied” with their jobs (see table below). If these data are to be taken at face value, they imply that “happiness at work” is the norm in Britain.

Moreover, job satisfaction data suggests that the economic crisis has had hardly any impact on the well-being of workers. The crisis may have destroyed jobs and led to heightened job insecurity but according to these data it has not led to any decline in reported job satisfaction. On the contrary, reported job satisfaction has actually increased in Britain since 2007. This result is also found in other data, including the 2011 Workplace Employment Relations Study.

The above results fit with other evidence that shows that reported job satisfaction tends to be higher in “busts” than in “booms”.1 They are also in line with other evidence that shows that reported life satisfaction has flat-lined in Britain over the last few years; this despite the worst economic crisis in living memory.

But before we conclude that recessions and crises are good for the quality of work we need to think more carefully and critically about what job satisfaction data are telling us. What I want to argue is that job satisfaction data does not tell us how good or bad workers’ work lives are going (see here for an elaboration of this argument). One reason is that these data are affected by what workers expect to get from work. A high level of job satisfaction may simply reflect the low expectations of workers – workers may get little from their jobs but if they expect to get little in the first place they may still report relatively high job satisfaction. A rise in job satisfaction may simply reflect a downward adjustment in workers’ expectations about work – if workers expect the very worst to happen and a slightly less bad outcome occurs then their reported job satisfaction may rise even though their work situation has become much worse. The point is that reports of job satisfaction offer a very noisy and potentially misleading signal of the quality of work life. They cannot and should not be accepted at face value.
In Britain, workers have been led to expect hard times in the years following the crisis. They were told by the government as well as employers that times would be hard and that sacrifices would be necessary. Job losses and pay cuts were seen as part of the “new normal”. Compared with their less fortunate peers who have lost their jobs, those still in work may view themselves as the lucky ones. This experience of having survived the worst of times may explain why many workers have continued to report high job satisfaction in spite of their facing increased hardships at work.

In time, the inferior conditions faced by workers at work may feed through to lower reported job satisfaction. But this may await a sustained fall in unemployment as workers’ expectations about work rise and they gain the confidence to express their dissatisfaction with their jobs. While unemployment remains high and expectations about work remain low, reported job satisfaction may continue to mask the real hardships of workers’ lives at work.

There is a more general problem with job satisfaction data as a measure of the quality of work. This is that job satisfaction data implies that the quality of work can be reduced to a feeling; in this case, a feeling exhibited by a score in a survey. This fails to get to the heart of what work means to people. I have argued elsewhere about the meaning of work. Here I want to stress that job satisfaction data fails to capture the importance of work in terms of the requirements that people have to lead lives of meaning and purpose. We lose much of the significance of work in the lives of people by reducing it to a measure of job satisfaction. We also run the risk, as argued above, of condoning work that in fact inflicts real harm on the well-being of workers.

There may still be a place for job satisfaction data. Better questions that probe the norms and expectations of workers may help to improve the quality of job satisfaction data. But even then job satisfaction data alone cannot be relied upon to measure in a fully accurate way the quality of work life. To gauge the quality of work we need different data including objective data on things like the extent of zero-hours contracts. Research using more sophisticated data, in fact, has shown that worker well-being has declined in recent years.  
So, while the government and employers may like us to believe that high and rising levels of job satisfaction are a sign of high and rising job quality the opposite may well be true. High and increasing levels of reported job satisfaction, in reality, may hide the fact that urgent action is needed to protect and promote the quality of work. In other words, they may prevent us from seeing and resolving real hardships at work.

1 Clark A. “Worker Well-Being in Booms and Busts”, in The Labour Market in Winter: The State of Working Britain, Wadsworth, J., and Gregg, P. (Eds.), Oxford: Oxford University Press, (2011), pp. 128-143.

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