Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Record Low Job Satisfaction

Job satisfaction among U.S. workers is the lowest it has been in the 22 years since the Conference Board has been keeping track. In truth, it is probably the lowest ever.

Some of this is the inevitable result of the recession and the financial factors that led into it. People can’t easily change jobs, and workers are more reluctant to complain about problems, so jobs really aren’t as good as they would be in better times. Many people couldn’t move to take a better job even if one were offered because they owe too much on their home mortgages. Financial factors are also not inspiring to workers: most wages are not rising, costs of commuting and health coverage are taking an increasing cut of paychecks, and the revelation that executives are taking 20 to 30 percent of many companies’ payrolls is discouraging to many workers. Employer attitudes are probably the biggest factor, though. With so many more applicants than job openings, it is easy for businesses to view all their workers as replaceable. At the same time, most businesses are facing enormous challenges that prevent them from thinking about less pressing concerns such as worker morale.

Declining job satisfaction is a long-term trend, according to the Conference Board, cutting across age groups, economic outlook, and all of the components of workers’ opinions of their jobs.

Low job satisfaction is more than just a nuisance. It is a risk factor for the economy. It was low job satisfaction that ultimately killed the old Soviet economy and led to the breakup of the Soviet Union. Workers there became so convinced that their companies’ managers were sabotaging all their efforts that they stopped taking the initiative to solve problems. The situation in the United States is well above Soviet levels, but still, you don’t have to look far to find workers who are working just enough to get by because their employers have let them know that any additional effort would go to waste. (Some people believe it was the war in Afghanistan that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, but if that’s the case, the United States currently has that risk factor too.)

There is one morbid irony in the falling job satisfaction in the United States that has to be mentioned. It’s hard to love a job when you keep working more and more hours just to pay for the health coverage that comes with it, and Congress is considering a measure to make this connection mandatory. The great irony here is that low job satisfaction is the #2 risk factor for heart disease. Among risk factors, it is second only to unhappiness. Heart disease, of course, is not a minor category of disease, but one of the most deadly. The idea behind the American system of forcing people to work, peasant-style, for health coverage, is that access to medical treatment will help people stay healthy, but this approach may be doing the opposite. It may actually be reducing people’s health by taking away their job satisfaction.