Job Satisfaction In Psychology

Jeremy Sutton, Ph.D. 0 28-10-2020 /

Although job satisfaction has been widely explored in psychology, a single definition is lacking.

However, Edwin Locke (1976) from the University of Maryland offers a good starting point. He describes job satisfaction as:

“The pleasurable emotional state resulting from the appraisal of one’s job as achieving or facilitating the achievement of one’s job values.”

It’s a little wordy – and doesn’t help us explain or predict job satisfaction – but does suggest a link to happiness. After all, it’s a complicated matter. There are working people who are miserable, and there are people searching for work who are equally unhappy.

So, while it may not be as simple as having a job, considering meaning in work may improve our understanding of job satisfaction.

Meaning and satisfaction in work

Rosso, Dekas, and Wrzesniewski (2010) asked whether meaning is crucial to employees’ experience of work. After all, for most of us it’s a necessity – paying bills and affording the occasional vacation.

Beyond basic necessities, finding meaning in work is also vital for (Rosso et al., 2010):

  • Work motivation
  • Work behavior
  • Limiting absenteeism
  • Engagement
  • Organizational identification
  • Career development
  • Individual performance
  • Personal fulfillment

Indeed, meaning in work is linked to more profound experiences of purpose and happiness – known in the social sciences as eudaimonic happiness – and job satisfaction (Rosso et al., 2010).

Meaning is about the why

People who find meaning in what they do – sometimes described as a calling – report greater work satisfaction and even tend to work longer (often unpaid) hours (Steger, Dik, & Duffy, 2012).

Michael Pratt, professor of management and organization at Boston College, says, “Meaningfulness is about the why, not just about what” (Weir, 2013).

I’m building a hospital” versus “I’m laying bricks.
I’m getting ready to save lives” versus “I’m studying medicine.
I’m providing healthcare and education for my family” versus “I’m updating spreadsheets.

Job satisfaction is down to interpretation

Like happiness, job satisfaction has more to do with how we interpret the situation and the events as they unfold than where we find ourselves. After all, happiness relies on the “interpretative framework that assigns positive value to the event,” says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2016).

His research showed that people often find more opportunities for an optimal experience and flow at work than in home life. This appears to result from our jobs often being high-skill and high-challenge, while our leisure is often low-skill and low-challenge. And yet, despite this, people at work wish to be elsewhere, while at leisure, people are often where they want to be (Csikszentmihalyi, 2016).

In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi (2009) describes how most of us need ever-increasing mental and physical labor to “satisfy escalating expectations.” And yet, work, even if it is difficult, need not be unpleasant. It can be satisfying and enjoyable – perhaps the most enjoyable part of our lives.

Throughout his research into optimal experiences, Csikszentmihalyi interviewed many people who found meaning and enjoyment even in the most arduous physical jobs. He describes such people as having autotelic personalities able to create flow-like experiences in the toughest of conditions (Csikszentmihalyi, 2009).

One of the hallmarks of such personalities is the ability to transform any job into a complex activity. They developed skills, recognized opportunities, focused on the task, and lost themselves in their interaction with what they were doing (Csikszentmihalyi, 2009).

People appear to derive job satisfaction from complexity, skilled work, and being part of something much bigger, whether that be spiritual or not (Steger et al., 2012).

A lack of job satisfaction

But, ignoring the autotelic few, for many, job satisfaction is absent.

A 2013 Gallup poll found that only 30% of U.S. workers are engaged in what they do. The other 70% have checked out – their passion is gone and their energy drained.

Such limited job satisfaction is not only detrimental to wellbeing; disengaged workers drain their managers’ time and “undermine what their co-workers accomplish.” They are more frequently absent and, according to Gallup, cost companies customers due to poor service – worth a staggering $450–550 billion per year (Weir, 2013).

5 Models Explaining Job Satisfaction

Models explaining job satisfaction

Job satisfaction is, according to Paul Spector (1997) from the University of South Florida, the “extent to which people like (satisfaction) or dislike (dissatisfaction) their jobs.”

This satisfaction is multi-factored, with research findings suggesting influences from multiple separate yet overlapping elements, including (Hassard, Teoh, & Cox, 2018):

  • Working conditions
  • Pay
  • Colleagues
  • Whether the job meets or exceeds work expectations
  • Enjoyment of work

Researched widely in both occupational and organizational psychology, several job satisfaction theories have arisen, but no overall consensus has been reached (Hassard et al., 2018).

Some of the more common theories of job satisfaction, many of which overlap with various theories of motivation, include (Hassard et al., 2018):

Hierarchy of needs

Maslow’s needs hierarchy was one of the first models to explore the factors that impact job satisfaction.

Maslow’s (1943) famed five-level hierarchy, from the top down, consists of:

  • Self-actualization – realization of a person’s potential
  • Esteem – approval, respect, and recognition
  • Belonging – acceptance, affiliation, and affection
  • Safety – security, stability, and freedom from fear
  • Physiological needs – food, shelter, and water

Essential physiological needs such as water, food, and shelter must be met before higher, more complex needs such as esteem can be reached.

While developed to explain more general human motivation, the hierarchy also applies to job satisfaction, for example:

  • Basic physiological needs within an organization are met through pay and healthcare.
  • Safety is reflected by both feelings of security within the workplace and job security.
  • Self-actualization is only reached when the individual has achieved all they are capable of. However, the final stage is difficult to measure, and it can be unclear when reached.

Motivator hygiene model

According to Frederick Herzberg’s (1966) motivator hygiene model, job satisfaction and dissatisfaction may not be related or exist on the same continuum.

The factors that impact satisfaction and dissatisfaction are, therefore, not the same:

  • Benefits, pay, and achievement are needed to ensure the employee is satisfied at work.
  • Working conditions, job security, quality of management, etc. (known as hygiene factors) are associated with job dissatisfaction.

If we take the model literally, it is possible for an employee to be neither satisfied nor dissatisfied. Research attempts to validate the model have had mixed results (Hassard et al., 2018).

Job characteristics model

Hackman and Oldham’s (1975) job characteristics model has received greater empirical support. It predicts that individuals are higher in job satisfaction when intrinsically motivated characteristics are present.

Skill variety, task identity, task significance, autonomy, and positive or even constructive negative feedback influence job satisfaction. Improving any one – or all of them – leads to increased job satisfaction.

Dispositional approach

Job satisfaction appears closely associated with personality. As our character tends to be relatively stable across time and environments, logically, so is our job satisfaction level.

Though inconsistent, support has come from research that shows job satisfaction is typically stable for over five years (Hassard et al., 2018).

Self-determination theory

While the above models’ validity has often lacked support, Richard Ryan and Edward Deci’s (2018) Self-Determination Theory has been successfully validated in many aspects of human motivation. Put simply, when basic psychological needs – relatedness, autonomy, and competence – are met, humans are more intrinsically motivated.

When put to the test in a large-scale intervention with a U.S. Fortune 500 company, a more autonomy-supportive (intrinsically motivating) managerial style saw increased job satisfaction (Ryan & Deci, 2018).

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