As adults, we spend the majority of our waking hours at work. That means our experience at work determines a great deal of our happiness, or not. We teach our kids that finding their passion, finding the job they will love is the path to a happy life. If we can work on what we find interesting, we will have successful lives. But is the belief supported by science?
Maybe not. A new study from the University of Houston joins a growing body of research findings that job satisfaction has a lot more to do with the people we work with than it does with the actual work we do.
American workers have reported consistently rising rates of job related stress in recent years. In 2019 a study from Korn Ferry found that employee stress levels had risen 20% over three decades. That same survey identified direct bosses as the most important source stress, according to 35% of respondents.
Another study in 2013 found that 83% of workers were stressed about work. In that survey one of the key sources of that stress after low pay was annoying coworkers (11% of respondents).
That makes sense, because in modern society our job is often the majority of our social interaction. Most of us spend more of our time with our coworkers than we do with our friends and family. Since the human nervous system is wired for social, particularly in the form of a “tribe,” those we work with have a tremendous impact on our life experience.
The Houston study aimed to clarify whether the common belief that ‘interest fit’ drives job satisfaction is correct. The idea is widely held, despite that fact that, “previous meta-analyses reported non-significant relations between interest fit and job satisfaction,” the authors wrote. They also pointed out that these past meta-analyses had statistical challenges. (Meta-analysis is a method that allows researchers to evaluate a wide body of data gathered from many different studies to get a better idea of what the evidence really shows.)
To sort out the situation, the research team did it’s own updated meta-analysis. They “systematically reviewed the link between interest fit and job satisfaction across 105 studies spanning over 65 years.” And they did find that whether people are interested in their job predicted job satisfaction, but not nearly as much as they had expected.
“Our main finding was that interest fit significantly predicts satisfaction, but it’s not as strong of a relation as people expect,” said Kevin Hoff, assistant professor of industrial-organizational psychology, in a press release. “Being interested in your work seems more important for job performance and the downstream consequences of performing well, like raises or promotions.”
Most of us remember taking a ‘vocational interest inventory’ at some point in our education. I took one in 7th grade that declared I would thrive as an actuarial or a librarian. It could not have been more wrong.
The practice of trying to guide people toward a job they will love by such inventories is so entrenched we rarely question it. That’s probably because we’ve been doing it for 80 years. Career interest assessments were first used to help people find satisfaction in their work in the 1940s.
The practice is not entirely misguided. After all, the study found that whether your interests align with what you do at work is strongly correlated with how successful you will be. “Our results show that people who are more interested in their jobs tend to be slightly more satisfied, but interest assessments are more useful for guiding people towards jobs in which they will perform better and make more money” said Hoff.
So if you find your work interesting, you are more likely to be successful. But you might still hate your job. Why? Because of your social experience.
“Things that lead to satisfaction include the organization you work for, your supervisor, colleagues and pay,” said Hoff.
On the one hand, that takes some of the pressure off young people who have been told they must find their passion. “To be satisfied with a job, you don’t have to worry too much about finding a perfect fit for your interests because we know other things matter, too. As long as it’s something you don’t hate doing, you may find yourself very satisfied if you have a good supervisor, like your coworkers, and are treated fairly by your organization,” said Hoff.
And therein lies the challenge: finding an organization where you feel valued and a good experience with your boss and coworkers.
The American Psychological Association has identified feeling valued by one’s employer as a crucial piece for job satisfaction. In one of their studies, people who report feeling valued by their employer were “significantly more likely to report they are motivated to do their very best for their employer (93% vs. 33%).”
Feeling valued is so important, that in some studies it trumps compensation. In a pre-pandemic study done on 988 full-time members of the Mass General Hospital Department of Medicine, i.e. Harvard, found that whether the doctors felt they were well-paid well or not had no impact how satisfied they were with their jobs. So what did? They wanted to feel valued.
The MGH doctors identified three factors in job satisfaction: being treated with respect, feeling valued by their leadership, and feeling that the work environment was social and supportive.
“I think there’s no doubt that simply beginning to recognize how important promoting a sense of value and respect in the work environment is critical. And I think beginning to have these conversations begins to make you feel that the institution cares and that they’re trying,” said study author Arabella L. Simpkin, M.D., MMSc, Instructor in Medicine at Harvard Medical School, in an interview.
In the end then it’s not enough to find work we like; we need a supportive environment with colleagues. That is certainly consistent with findings across scientific domains: humans need positive social interactions in an ongoing way. It may take some pressure off to know that finding the perfect subject for our interest is not strictly necessary if we can find the right social environment.
But imagine how satisfying the workplace can be when these two factors are combined? Humans connect in a particularly powerful way when we work with people we link on a shared interest. Job satisfaction links to a collegial environment, and such satisfaction drives a motivation to do our best work, which we do best when we are interested in it.
The workplace that successfully combines shared mission with a sense of personal belonging might just be unstoppable.