Should job satisfaction be replaced by job happiness?

Should job satisfaction be replaced by job happiness?
Is happiness more important? Photo: REX/Image Source

Companies spend vast amounts of resources on measuring or enhancing employee satisfaction, in the belief that satisfied employees are more effective, more loyal and have fewer sick days. This hypothesis does not hold water – research shows that satisfied employees do not necessarily perform any better, call in sick less often or stay longer in their jobs.

That’s why you need to look less at job satisfaction and more at job happiness. The two concepts are related, but are very different nevertheless. The difference is simple: job satisfaction is about what employees think about their work. When they look at all the individual components of their work circumstances – such as their wages, job content, commuting time, pension plans and perks – are they then satisfied with what they have got? It is an intellectual exercise, and satisfaction is mainly based on comparison with others, not on absolute terms: “Do I get more or less than my colleagues? Are my circumstances better than those of the employees at our competitors?”

Job happiness, on the other hand, is about how people feel at work right this moment. Are your employees currently feeling happy, proud, appreciated and motivated? Or are they feeling stressed out, nervous, disappointed and frustrated?

Happy employees are more productive

We are not used to talking about feelings at the workplace, but research shows that the feeling of happiness – or positive affect, as psychologists call it – is exactly what improves performance. Psychological, sociological and neurological studies all show that when your employees are having a good day, they are more productive, creative, energetic and motivated. Happy employees are also better at working together; they sell more and provide much better service for the customers. In short, a happy employee is a dream employee. Job satisfaction does not have the same effect.

Lots of employees are satisfied, but not happy. You know them well – they are the ones who have already got everything they asked for. They have reasonable wages, bonuses and pension plans. You have just spent a fortune on in-house massage therapy and height adjustable desks. Their scores at the annual workplace work satisfaction assessment are fine, perhaps 4.3 out of 5. They do their job and do it reasonably well, but they do not bring any new ideas to the table, do not show much enthusiasm about anything, and rarely go the extra mile for the customers or the organisation without being prompted.

Job satisfaction alone is not enough

Of course, satisfaction requirements must be met. Your employees must get a salary that matches their worth. If someone deserves a promotion or a bonus, they should get it. But job satisfaction on its own will not automatically lead to positive results for the workplace – it is just the foundation that job happiness should be built on. And once the basics are in place, you cannot improve job happiness by creating more job satisfaction.

There are three main reasons why companies and managers focus so much on job satisfaction in spite of its limited effect. First of all, it is what everybody else is doing and the power of convention is great. Second, satisfaction is easy to measure. Feelings at the workplace can be measured too, but it takes more than just an annual questionnaire. And third, it is easy and commitment-free to improve job satisfaction; it is just a question of getting out the company wallet and showering people with bonuses, free fruit, coffee, massage and so on.

Engaging with employees

Job happiness, on the other hand, depends on an organisation that is honestly and sincerely committed to its employees. It takes a thorough understanding of these employees’ wishes and dreams. It takes managers who are willing to engage with their employees and discuss work-related joys and sorrows with them.

It is not easy. Ironically, an effort to improve job happiness may come significantly cheaper than many satisfaction-raising initiatives, but it requires a lot of personal commitment from the managers. However, let me make this absolutely clear: if you continue to merely measure and create job satisfaction, you are wasting your time (and your money). More job happiness, on the other hand, is the road to a better working life for the employees and to better results at the workplace.

About Alex Kjerulf

Alex Kjerulf spoke on the subject of job happiness at the Good Day at Work Conference on November 13th 2013, which featured a stream focused on wellbeing in the UK banking sector.
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