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Why Your Job Satisfaction May Not Be Meaningful

Split images of a satisfaction emoji and a new-born child
Images from Pixabay

Scholars in the philosophy of work often like to make a distinction between job satisfaction and meaningful work. Reasons for doing so involve being able to think about wellbeing in life beyond things that a job may provide. It’s sort of like the tail wagging the dog in the sense that satisfaction in a job should be determined by what we expect out of life, and not by aims and values narrowly specific to a job.

Take the broad category of happiness.

Would you want to say that happiness in life is happiness in your job? By those lights, you would be getting more joy from meetings, targets, budgets, and quality assurance benchmarks than a day at the beach with family and friends.

So what, then, are the signs that job satisfaction may actually be working against us and our larger plans for a fulfilling and meaningful life?

Job Satisfaction as a Zero-Sum Game

In the worst case, satisfaction in a job may very well boil down to a sense of gratitude that one can meet everyday needs; where one is happy to put food on the table. Here's how I like to see it:

When meeting economic necessity becomes the sole aim of working and the dominant measure by which one determines how satisfied one is with one’s job, then job satisfaction eats away at our ability to live life to its fullest.

An academic colleague of mine, Chris Riddle, put this well when he said that in such instances, work becomes corrosive on our capabilities to live well.

Think of it as a zero-sum game where satisfaction in one’s job takes away from meanings and experiences in life. It's only when there's a zero-sum relation that the proportion by which job satisfaction increases, that meaningfulness in work decreases.

A graph show proportional relations between meaningfulness and job satisfaction

This is because meaningful work is not only significant within the confines of the job, but as I discuss elsewhere, meaningful work contributes directly to and is an integral part of a flourishing life.

The zero-sum game is an extreme case and usually arises in different forms of economic and social exploitation.

You may think a complete zero-sum relation to job satisfaction is somewhat rare. Yet, it tends to affect more working class strata of society, since it is there that the range of expectations are much more confined. Economic research shows that working class laborers tend to find happiness simply in being able to meet basic needs for the day — food, clothing, shelter (see, for example, Amartya Sen's The Idea of Justice).

In addition to the problem of exploitative working and living conditions, there are subtler ways in which job satisfaction can be parasitic upon meaningfulness.

I discuss in detail how meaningful work can be implemented to some degree. As a way of recapping, I’ll just say here that meaningfulness in work typically involves development of the person so that they are not just good at work, but good at being a person. I leave what I mean by “person” broad, though I’ll mention two key features of personhood. The capabilities

  • to articulate oneself, and

  • to be able to listen to others.

More generally, the development of personhood encompasses a wide range of qualities, much of which I like to refer to (à la virtue ethics) in terms of intellectual and character virtues.

How Job Satisfaction becomes Life Dissatisfaction

The core of the problem is that job satisfaction tends to relate to criteria whose origin is economic necessity. So let's imagine we're beginning with satisfaction in a job as the building block to a flourishing life. More than likely, we'll probably begin with a measure of financial sustainability:

  • Criterion #1: The job must pay a sustainable wage.

If the job ticks any other boxes we might have, then the satisfaction levels go up:

  • Working hours are reasonable.

  • The work is not stressful or over-exhausting.

  • Colleagues are professional and friendly.

  • There is room for progression.

  • Management is open and supportive.

The list can go on. But note that the bar of satisfaction is raised in a qualitatively different way when things about life enter:

  • It provides a sense of fulfilment

  • It is socially responsible.

  • It allows me to develop as a person.

But this is nothing surprising. In fact, if you search around websites offering views about the components of job satisfaction, you'll see desiderata concerning life being listed.

My contention:

it's easy enough to list desirables of a good life as belonging to job satisfaction, but can they really belong when jobs are defined predominantly by their underlying economic and financial focus?

Let me clarify what I mean by "predominantly".

I grasp the fact that businesses have to be profitable. And I am not saying that this necessity should be ignored. My more robust take on this is that if businesses understood how profitable it is to take into consideration areas of meaningfulness for both the business and employee, they become much better organizations. Retention and loyalty on the side of the business often means much happier employees.

In any case, the narrow focus on mostly economic and financial ends reveals itself as being wanting with regard to meaningfulness in at least two ways.

1. Lack of Nurturing

Furthermore, there is nothing to really guarantee that these meaningful qualities represent real opportunities if the respective corporate culture is under-developed. This is because cultural and organizational change has to be done deliberately in view of the people it is going to affect — a key principle of transition management. Simple ticking boxes on a checklist of job satisfaction will likely result in the changes being ineffective, unsubstantial, and short-lived.

Two people holding hands and walking on a pier into a storm
Image by Enrique from Pixabay

2. Inability to Resolve Crisis

There is also the issue of "mid-life crisis", which as a philosopher, I tend to see more in terms of an existential crisis. In other words, what we experience in mid-life often involves questions about

  • whether or not we think the life we have lived so far has been meaningful, and

  • where it might be leading in the future if things don't change.

This crisis feeling is usually underwritten by a sense of meaninglessness or futility about the past, anxiety in the present moment, and dread about the future.

* * * * *

Putting meaningful work before financial concerns is not pie-in-the-sky thinking. It's a practical point.

If we genuinely want to create the right foundation for job satisfaction, then we have to begin by prioritizing meaningfulness as the common or bridging feature between work and life.

But what does it take for job satisfaction to reach these heights?

And perhaps more importantly, why aren’t desirables like this common to what we expect of jobs. For some reason, our modern Western mentality has been groomed to think work is not necessarily a part of a flourishing life. I discuss this in some detail in terms of “the compensation argument”.

While it is well outside the remit of a blog to attempt to answer this problem, I can nonetheless provide some tools to help build a scaffolding by which the conditions of our job might be raised.

Building Value in Work towards a Flourishing Life

To recall, we want life and meaningfulness to be the building block or foundation for thinking about how a job role out to be. The idea, then, is to build a scale of values by which we can see how aspects of life and aspects of a job flow in and out of each other, or in undesirable cases, are blocked or bottlenecked.

Consider this basic illustration, which I call scaling job satisfaction:

A Job-life scale of values

The idea: Things that matter to the logistics of a job sit closer to the top, while things that matter to a flourishing life sit closer to the bottom (the foundation).

As one moves between a job and a life, as it were, we can identify how the two might be in dialogue with one another. In other words, a meaningful job in sync with life should be moving down the scale of values towards the middle of the chart.

  • V1 is the most basic form of job-life integration, where a job allows for the real opportunity to develop. It provides an employee with opportunities to gain skills and progress.

  • V2 is not just about job skills but you as a person. The job offers real opportunities to directly and indirectly develop your person. For an example of this, see one of my past consultation success stories involving overcoming social anxiety through work.

  • V3 occurs when some of the things you cherish in life are matters that your employer takes seriously. The most immediate example of which I can think is my time working at REI, where employee values about conserving nature and getting more people "outside" are shared by the company.

Ideally, the scale would be something of which one's employer would be cognizant in order to evaluate its own performance and standing as "an employer of choice".

But sometimes, it takes an outside helping hand to get things rolling and to keep the momentum sustained. And that's what we do at Philosophy2u — helping meaningful work meet a meaningful life. Reach out to us for more information!

About the Author

Dr Todd Mei is founder of Philosophy2u and consultant on meaningful work. He is also lead researcher for 1.2 Labs, a consultation firm whose mission is to get innovative projects aiming to help society "on chain". He was former Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Kent (UK). When not working, you can probably find him on the water in the waves and wind.

This blog and its content are protected under the Creative Commons license and may be used, adapted, or copied without permission of its creator so long as appropriate credit to the creator is given and an indication of any changes made is stated. The blog and its content cannot be used for commercial purposes.


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