Society has moved on from the idea of a ‘job for life’. This is great news! People now recognise their freedom to let go of roles that don’t align with their nature, or that stifle them in some other way.
But a substantial challenge remains: identifying the kinds of work we actually will enjoy.
When I decided to step away from medicine almost 2 years ago, it felt like I was setting foot on a long, winding road without any signposts or milestones. And the role of inner work in helping me navigate forward can scarcely be overstated.
But I also found guidance in external data – specifically, the realm of positive psychology (in fact, this post is based on a more in-depth piece I wrote for the blog PositivePsychology.com)
While researching job satisfaction factors, I quickly saw that there simply isn’t a cookie-cutter formula we can use to guarantee job satisfaction. We each vary in our values, priorities and personalities, so what’s true for one person isn’t true (or even relevant) for another.
But whether we choose to work in small start-ups, gigantic organisations, or be our own bosses, human nature only varies to a point. Which means certain factors do govern how satisfied we feel in our professional lives (almost universally).
In this article, I’ll break down 5 of these overarching themes – the degree to which they’re present tends to make or break our sense of job satisfaction.
How often do you get pleasantly lost in your everyday work? How often does your mind wander?
It’s no secret that workplace disengagement is endemic; a 2017 Gallup poll found that just 13% of the global workforce describe themselves as ‘engaged’ at work.
This is definitely not a reason to blame ourselves. Most people come to work with pure intentions, hoping to put in an honest day’s work. But workplaces must be consciously designed for engagement, and even so, not every form of work matches every personality.
In terms of the ‘core ingredients’ of engagement, an observational study spanning two decades found that engaging activities provide some combination of the five factors which follow…
When you enter ‘flow’, your attention is 100% on-task.
This experience of being ‘in the zone’ can be very fulfilling, and it happens when you’re fully immersed in what you’re doing. To enter this state, tasks must align with your natural strengths (at least to some extent – more on that later).
In a sense, disengagement is the opposite of flow – you’re painfully aware of the passing of time, and probably distracted by your thoughts or surroundings.
Autonomy refers to the level of freedom you have in scheduling your tasks and deciding how you’ll tackle them. You can think of autonomy as being the polar opposite of micromanagement.
Clear tasks feel like discrete pieces of work with well-defined start and endpoints. When this is the case, workers can break down tasks into smaller chunks and engage with them much more effectively. The result? Motivation shoots up.
Facing a variety of challenges at work goes hand in hand with engagement.
While some tasks are inherently monotonous, however, there’s also the idea of ‘job crafting’. This is the philosophy of redesigning the way you work. It means thinking outside the box, sculpting a personalised approach to tasks, and sometimes even reframing the overarching purpose you bring to work.
Then again, job crafting is only possible if you’re allowed a certain level of autonomy (see above).
A regular dose of clear, balanced feedback on your performance can be motivating. Ultimately, this boosts your engagement with the work in front of you.
Research shows that people who find their jobs ‘meaningful’ are more satisfied at work. Meaningful work is also linked to higher motivation, performance, and personal fulfilment.
This isn’t surprising – humans are meaning-making machines, physiologically hard-wired to seek patterns in the chaos. When we struggle to do so, work can feel like a grind (Dostoyevsky theorised that the worst torture a person can endure is being forced to endlessly repeat an obviously pointless task, to the point of absurdity).
Part of the responsibility does lie with your employer, if you have one. Many of us are embedded in such complicated organisational hierarchies that we’ve simply lost touch with the outputs of our labour. For many people, it’s important to be reminded of these outputs often, so we don’t feel like another cog in the machine.
But we also can’t overlook our own role. We need to take ownership of our purpose, wherever it might come from (this can become a form of job crafting – see above).
Simply put, the purpose we bring to work is our answer to the question “why am I doing what I’m doing?”
There are a few levels at which to answer this question, as implied by this well-known story about three stonecutters:
A man was walking down the street and happened on three stonecutters, each chipping away at a large block of granite. The man was curious and asked the ﬁrst stonecutter what he was doing. The man grouched back, “I’m cutting this stone, can’t you see? Let me work!”
Approaching the second stonecutter, our curious person asks the same question. “I’m building a wall,” the stonecutter said, pointing to the long wall taking shape behind him. This helped a little, so the man turned to the third stonecutter and asked again.
The third replied, with a smile on his face, “I’m building a cathedral!” Sweeping his arm over the wall, he explained, “Decades from now, this will be complete, and my grandchildren will worship in the grandest cathedral in the land. And I will have played some small part in building it.”
The activity is identical for each stonecutter, and yet their attitudes differ radically:
- The first stonecutter gives a reductive answer – his ‘why’ is to get the job done, and that’s that.
- The second stonecutter operates at a higher level of meaning. He recognises a larger purpose of his work, one which goes beyond the context of the actual work itself. Another example might be working in order to fund your leisure or provide for your family.
- Finally, there’s the third stonecutter, whose purpose reaches a more transcendent level. This is the level of what we might call ‘legacy’ – the wider impact of our work. What are we creating in our limited time on earth? How are we using work as a conduit for our values?
None of the above levels are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. But the higher up we go, the more our sense of meaning expands, thereby sustaining and energising us. At least personally, I’ve found this to be the truth.
To what extent does your job allow for deep connection with other people? If you were to leave your current role, who would you miss?
According to Maslow’s theory of human motivation, we long for communion and belonging on a deep, primal level. And with so much time spent at work, research shows that our sense of workplace ‘belongingness’ partly explains how passionate we feel about our jobs.
There are many ways to increase this sense of connectedness at work:
- Listening to colleagues with greater presence and depth
- Expressing ourselves more authentically and assertively
- Going above and beyond to serve our clients/customers
But the importance of this factor also depends on how much time you spend at work.
If your job takes up a large chunk of the week, the work itself is only one piece of the puzzle – the larger question might be whether you truly align with the people you’re forced to bond with.
Linked to the above point on connection is the 4th theme – workplace culture. This is actually several job satisfaction factors rolled under one umbrella, so let’s look at three significant examples.
If your workplace culture subtly frames downtime as ‘the enemy’, how could you not start resenting your job over time? Our free time is the space where we get to be just that – ‘free’ to live our lives.
If your employer is heavy-handed about incentivising overtime – or worse, bullies you into it – that erosion of your personal life could lead to deep job dissatisfaction.
Does your employer stop to acknowledge employee achievements? Is there a system of clear feedback? Is there too much/too little communication?
The frequency, nature and quality of communications you receive at work is an important factor in job satisfaction.
Common ‘inputs’ include hard work, enthusiasm and personal sacrifice, while common ‘outputs’ include money, recognition and job security.
The greater the imbalance between what you put in and what you get out, the more dissatisfied you’re likely to feel (I believe this is why many jobs that lack work-life balance, autonomy and a sense of meaningful contribution pay the best).
But it’s also about the type of outputs; when you aren’t being rewarded with the outputs you value, you’re unlikely to derive satisfaction from even hefty rewards.
Ask yourself: is there a noticeable mismatch between what you’re bringing to the table and what you’re getting out? This is an issue of self-respect – you deserve the most from investing your limited time on this earth.
Finally, work that enables people to capitalise on their true nature – including their unique blend of values, character traits and strengths – is more likely to be rewarding.
This factor is often taken for granted, but it makes a lot of sense – according to self-determination theory, human beings have a universal need to experience ‘competence’ in their endeavours.
It also links us back to the theme of meaningfulness – a 2012 study showed that when people develop a sense of ‘calling’, it’s often because there’s a solid match between their character strengths on one hand, and the traits needed to excel on the other.
When a person is forced to go against their nature at work (or even downplay their strengths), they may not be able to derive much enjoyment in it. Their career might be a perfect fit for someone else, but if they can’t themselves enter flow and engage fully, the connection just might not be there.
You might have noticed something about the above 5 job satisfaction factors – they often intersect, creating an interlinked ‘web’ rather than a discrete series. This means it wouldn’t be surprising to score either really well or really badly across all 5 themes.
However, if you’re in the former camp and yet remain dissatisfied, reflect on whether your personal life as a whole is providing you with fulfilment.
And if you scored low across all 5 of these job satisfaction factors – which isn’t unlikely – then hopefully you have a clearer picture of how to weigh up forks in your professional journey.