At a glance
By Caroline Zielinski
The COVID-19 pandemic has seen many professionals reassess their priorities and the role that work plays in their life. Many are asking themselves how much of their job they should reasonably expect to enjoy, how much they should tolerate, and how much do they could actively dislike.
“It’s more useful to think about our relationship to work in terms of satisfaction,” says Bill Harley, professor of management and marketing at the University of Melbourne.
“Content – what we are mainly employed to do – still matters to people, as does the degree of autonomy and satisfactory pay,” he says. “While this doesn’t mean you wouldn’t like to be paid more, you can still recognise when you’re being paid fairly.”
The other aspect of job satisfaction relates to its social aspects, Harley says, and this applies equally across generations, despite anecdotal evidence to the contrary.
“Research found that a lot of what made work function and give people meaning was being part of a group, interacting with people to achieve tasks,” Harley says.
Jayashri Kulkarni, professor of psychiatry at the Alfred Health and Monash University, agrees.
“It’s the socialisation aspect that makes or breaks the enjoyment of a job, I believe, and people can deal with the bad bits much better if they have that,” she says.
While someone may be pulled into another job with promises of more money, promotions and interesting work, Kulkarni says it is “work politics and tense situations” that will make someone hate all aspects of their job, and even leave.
She likes to apply the rule of thirds. “Our day is divided into thirds – a third for play, a third for work and a third for sleep,” Kulkarni says.
“I’d apply that to our job, too – a third should be enjoyable, a third tolerable and a third stuff you just have to do.
“That said, if you’re dipping below the thirds rule and you enjoy no parts of your job, then you may not be in the right place.”
What is tolerable, and what is not, also depends on the time you start a particular role, says Dr Raymond Trau, senior lecturer in the Department of Management at Macquarie University.
Research indicates that people who start their career during an economic downturn tend to become more satisfied with their work over time, while those who enter jobs during boom times tend to become less satisfied.
“This suggests that the initial struggle helps people to overcome adversity and maintain their job satisfaction as things become easier,” Trau says. “Gratitude is also a big factor – if you are grateful for your job or career, you tend to cope with the bad times better.”
Our relationship with work
How can leaders and managers navigate the complex relationship employees have with work?
“Identifying ways to magnify the meaningful aspects of a job would be a great start,” says Dr Raymond Trau of Macquarie University. “When people see what they can contribute to, or the impact they can make, they are more likely to accept the unpleasant aspects of their job, as they tend to focus on the pleasant parts.”
Employees who are engaged in volunteering, whether it be through their work or outside of it, tend to make for more satisfied workers.
“Again, this points to meaning – give people the opportunity to do meaningful tasks, whether it’s on the job or outside of it,” he says.
Another strategy goes back right to the core of the employee-employer relationship, namely setting realistic work expectations. Trau says that giving interviewees and new employees a realistic overview of their tasks goes a long way to keeping workers satisfied in the long term.