Job Satisfaction – Unpacking All of the Reasons Why You Are Unhappy (or Happy at work) 

Are you happy with your job and career? Or unhappy? 

There are many reasons why we are happy or unhappy at or jobs, which I want to unpack here.

Why should we care to understand more about this? 

By being able to pinpoint exactly why we are happy or unhappy at our jobs and careers, we can, hopefully, make better decisions in the future.  

So instead of just saying ‘I hate it’, ‘I’m so tired’, ‘I don’t like it’, we can do something concrete about it. Change something about the situation at work, our perception about it, or leave the job altogether. 

It’ useful to understand well what exactly bothers you, so you can try to avoid certain kinds of jobs in the future. 

It is like going into a relationship. If you don’t know what specifically bothers you about a person, you can change relationships but it will still be the kind of relationship over and over again. 

Many people who make a change, end up being happier in their new job or career. 

Then, some people keep changing jobs but still don’t feel happy at work. 

The reason might be because they haven’t identified the root cause of their unhappiness at work.

Another reason to pay attention to job satisfaction is that it is related to mental health, especially burnout. If you are experiencing burnout, or feel like you’re close to it, then it’s time to unpack your baggage.

Job satisfaction also influences self-esteem. 

If you stay in a job you hate, won’t your regard for yourself diminish? It is one thing to get into a bad situation by accident. But after you realize the situation you are in, why are accept it?

Everyone wants to be happier at work. 

Some people say that happiness is a choice. And I subscribe to that school of thought, at least I try to believe it. But I have a more differentiated view on this.

In situations which we cannot change, yes, by all means, try to be happy. 

Accept the things you can’t change, make the best out of it. Bring happiness into life and contribute to other people’s happiness.

But if you are unhappy in a situation that you can change, why not do something about it? Adjust it, change it, get out of it? 

Some might have been dealt a worse hand in life, but the majority of people do have the option to change something about their situation. I dare to say that most people in the developed world are in a position where they can do something about the situation. 

So what is it that makes us happy or unhappy at work?

Tons of research has been done on the topic of job satisfaction that can give some surprising insights. 

Strictly speaking, ‘satisfaction’ and ‘happiness’ are not exactly the same. Satisfaction is the absence of want, while happiness has many more meanings, which may be philosophically, artistically, or religiously tinged. 

Like Charles Schulz, the creator of Snoopy said: “Happiness is a warm puppy”

However, it’s safe to say that satisfaction contributes to happiness, and whatever definition of happiness you subscribe to, by increasing job satisfaction, we come closer to being (truly) happy at work.  

Simply defined, job satisfaction is an individual’s positive emotional reactions and attitudes towards their job. 

Julia Yates in her book ‘The Career Coaching handbook” summarized 4 things that influence our job satisfaction, as well as an estimation of how much they influence it. I found this to provide a very good and useful research-based overview.

While most of us are aware of the different factors, we might overemphasize the meaning of some factors. After reading this, I experienced a bit of a paradigm shift in how I see job satisfaction, and why I think I am (was) happy in this or that job.

There are 2 stronger and 2 weaker factors that explain job satisfaction or a lack of it. Some might be surprising and perhaps controversial. I’ll also add on a 4th and 5th factor that I believe plays a role in job satisfaction for some people.

1. Work Factors 

Work factors are things that relate directly to a job. These include:

  1.  Task variety
  2. Colleagues
  3. Working conditions
  4. Workload
  5. Autonomy, and
  6. Educational opportunities

A study by Roelen, Koopmans, Groothoff (2008) concluded that these work factors account for 54% of our work satisfaction. 

A post on job satisfaction by hr.toolbox lists these 10 work factors. The difference is that these are more directed towards the company and are levers that companies can use to improve job satisfaction levels.

  • Does your company care about its employees?
  • Does the workplace encourage its employees to pursue their hobbies?
  • What is the average interval between promotions?
  • Do employees feel respected by their peers?
  • Is there a culture of two-way feedback?
  • Where do you stand on the issue of work-life balance? 
  • How do employees rate their relationship with their reporting heads?
  • Does your organization follow fair and inclusive policies?
  • Can employees nurture their creative instincts in their job?
  • Do employees feel secure about their role?

These can also provide some insights for individuals in figuring out what plays a big role in creating positive emotions towards their work.

Certainly, for every person, the weight placed on each factor will be different. The interpretation and how a person experiences a specific work factor may also be different. 

What represents a high workload for one may feel light to another. What seems a good colleague to one may be annoying to the other.

But going through the list of all these work factors, I come to realize why I liked certain jobs I had in the past, more or less.

Which of these work factors matter most to you? What has bothered you in your past jobs? 

Understanding what is important to you can help you land a job that is at a bit better, if not much better, the next time.

2. Individual factors 

Interestingly, individual factors explain 45% of job satisfaction, as explained in a study by Judge, Heller, Mount (2002) in the “5-factor model of personality and job satisfaction”. These include personality traits, age, and gender. 

According to this study, there are certain traits that predispose you to be content at work, personalities that are more likely to experience higher job satisfaction.

What this means is that there are people who regardless of job, can be happy (or happier than other people in the same job). Or are more easily satisfied, in a sense.

Yates summarizes that “The personality type most likely to enjoy their work lives, regardless of job, is that which scores low on neuroticism and high on extraversion, conscientiousness, and agreeableness. Neuroticism is negatively correlated with job satisfaction (by which I mean that people who score high on neuroticism are more likely to score low on job satisfaction).”

These might be the people who in life in general, are more easily satisfied, in a sense. 

You surely know people like these. Regardless of what they eat, where they go on vacation, these people can always find more reasons to be happy than unhappy. I count myself lucky to have a friend like this.

On the other hand, some people are more difficult to satisfy and easily upset about everything. 

The study also says that men and women may find different aspects more or less important at different times in their life. For example that women become more satisfied with their careers as they get older. 

In addition to this, some researchers have even linked genetics to job satisfaction.

On the one hand, it might seem that we are partially ‘pre-set’ to be easier satisfied and happy in our jobs.

On the other hand, is it possible that the knowledge of this leads towards more acceptance towards ourselves, which in turn can increase our job satisfaction indirectly?

Then there are 2 other factors that are even more difficult to quantify.

3. Life satisfaction

It’s hard to quantify, but safe to say that any major event or incident in someone’s life can have a huge impact on work. 

The third factor that Yates mentions in the chapter ‘Job Satisfaction’, in her book ‘Career Coaching Handbook’ is Life satisfaction.

There’s interdependence, a feedback loop between work and life. According to a study by researchers Georgellis, Lange, Tabvuma, (2012) “The impact of life events on job satisfaction” the direction of the effect goes especially from life events to work.

Everyone who had to deal with serious illness in their family, experiencing the death of a family member, serious family problems knows the toll it takes on life overall, negatively impacting job satisfaction. 

On the other hand, happy events, such as anticipation of an upcoming wedding or birth, can have a positive spillover effect and increase job satisfaction.

4. Match (Congruence)

Another factor addressed by Yates, gave me some surprising insights. 

The degree to which the individual and the job match is called ‘congruence’. The belief that there is an ideal job for everyone. 

That job satisfaction is not about work factors or individual factors, but that it depends on the right interaction between both.

Until recently I was mainly focused on this aspect when thinking about job satisfaction. I realize now that while for some people this might be crucial, on average, congruence is not the biggest determinant of job satisfaction.

Many theories and job matching methods are based on the theory of congruence though. And they are indeed highly interesting.

The idea that there is a perfect job for every person.

One of these is Holland’s theory that measures subjective interests. Here people are measured with a 3-letter code based on an individual’s top 3 interest areas. Thee includes the options of realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising, and conventional (RIASEC). 

Then in a database of jobs, for each code, there is a list of suitable jobs.

This is quite commonsense. Of course, we should be happy with a job where the work factors match our personality! Of course, having a job that matches your interests, skills, and values is going to make you more fulfilled at work.

But surprisingly, based on empirical studies, this only makes up for a small difference in job satisfaction. 

I think that an explanation to this might be, that so many assumptions go into determining a person’s personality and what a certain job comprises.

The usefulness of personality tests, in general, depends on how well they are built and how they are interpreted by people taking it. 

On the other hand, job A at company X might be different than at company Z.

Let’s take for example a person whose 3-letter code turns out to be RIE or realistic, investigative, and enterprising. 

According to the corresponding job database, this person would be suited to be a commercial pilot. And it is highly possible that the person will experience higher job satisfaction as a commercial pilot compared to being a second-grade teacher. 

However, other factors explained earlier will also come into play. Being a commercial pilot at airline X versus airline Z might be dramatically different. 

That being said, I believe that these kinds of tests are very useful (and especially fun!) but that’s not all there is to achieving job satisfaction.

Let’s move on to another interesting insight related to this.

Let’s just assume that there are useful and correct methods, tests, and results to determine ‘congruence’ or job-personality match. 

Yates points to an insightful study by Dik, Strife, Hansen (2010) “The flipside of Holland types congruence: Incongruence and job satisfaction” which shows that what’s more important is moving away from incongruence to congruence. 

The idea is similar to the law of diminishing returns. Many things can be done to increase job satisfaction until you reach a certain level of happiness.

But once that point is reached, adding more things, increasing factors will only lead to marginally more happiness. 

What about salary and benefit? 

So now where in this whole discussion are salary and benefits? Doesn’t salary increase job satisfaction, at least to a certain point? Here the above rule applies

The often-cited study by Princeton in 2010 found that there is a correlation between happiness and wealth (and even here I stress correlation which is no causation!) to a point of about $75,000 a year. Any increase up to this point contributes to a person being happier (and in reverse the lower the income from this point, unhappier), but beyond this, their happiness doesn’t increase as a result of the salary increase. If at all, only marginally.

There are so many factors that influence job satisfaction, and it’s hard to understand how all of these different factors come into play. 

But at least it gives some perspective about job satisfaction, especially for companies and their HR department, that to increase job satisfaction it’s not as easy as increasing the salary or adding vacation days.  

On a practical level, for job seekers, this overview of different factors might be useful to kick-start a self-evaluation.

There are two other factors that I can think of, that aren’t prominently discussed in these studies.

A person’s expectation about how the job should be like and also a person’s self-image.

I haven’t found research on these aspects yet, but I believe that these play a certain role, even if minor, for at least some people. 

5. Expectations

Similar to happiness in general, a person’s positive emotions toward a situation will depend on their expectations. 

We could term this expectation vs. reality.

Let’s take for example dining out. Your friend takes you to an Italian restaurant you’ve never been to. He says that they have the best ravioli he’s ever tasted. Your expectations are instantly super high. You taste the ravioli – and it’s quite yummy – but it’s not as good as you expected. In fact, you find that it’s similar to the supermarket-packaged ravioli you usually by. That can mess with your satisfaction with the ravioli.

If you expect a job to be awful, because many people pointed towards it, you might be positively surprised. You expected that retail job to be much worse. Experiencing it, you find it not to be as bad as your expectations, and hence you are slightly more satisfied than if you had higher expectations.

6. Self-image

Another thing is a person’s self-image. Who they think they should be in their career at a certain point in time. If most people become managers between the ages of 25 and 30, but you became a manager at only 23, you might feel more satisfied with the job. 

Reversely, if you think you should’ve been a manager by 28, but you’ve only reached that level at 35, you might end up not being as satisfied with your job because you think you are behind. 

Back to the central question: Why am I unhappy in my current job and career? 

Go through each of these factors and asking yourself whether and in how far a specific factor is important to you. 

Combine them into a list and you have a good starting point for your future job search and career development.

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