Post originally published May 14, 2018
I think most of us have heard the old adage about the ‘happy, productive worker’ and believed it. But what does the research say?
For years, organizational psychologists discussed the idea that happy workers should be better performers and more productive. It makes some intuitive sense, right? If you are feeling positive, it seems like you’d be more motivated to get things done and go through your day with a good attitude. However, the results around this idea were somewhat mixed until people started talking about the difference between job satisfaction and well-being.
Job Satisfaction vs. Well-Being
Job satisfaction and well-being are two very different ideas. For a long time, researchers were defining a happy worker as one that is satisfied in their job. The idea is that if someone is happy in their job, they should be a better performer. Below, I define job satisfaction and well-being to help unpack what this happy, productive worker idea really means in the real world.
Job satisfaction describes how much someone feels or thinks their experience in their job is positive or negative. Someone that has high job satisfaction believes their job is a good one and they probably also like doing it to some degree. It’s a very job-specific feeling. You can have high job satisfaction and be unhappy with pretty much everything else in your life. So would that actually make you a happy worker?
Interestingly, a strong review of the research did find that there is a relationship between job satisfaction and performance. Those that are happier in their jobs are better performers. But these same researchers didn’t believe that was the full picture. What about well-being?
Well-being is a term often used by researchers when studying the idea of happiness. It is a much broader idea than job satisfaction. Well-being describes someone’s life as a whole, not just one part. High well-being includes experiencing lots of positive emotions and very few negative emotions. I think most of us are familiar with this concept. In the scientific literature, it means the same thing that we mean using the word everyday.
Well-being has also been studied and found to predict performance. In other words, people with higher well-being (happier) are higher performers (more productive). One study even showed that people who were happier were still considered higher performers two years later!
So…What is a Happy, Productive Worker?
More recent research tried to understand how job satisfaction and well-being both contribute to this happy, productive worker idea. This study found that if an employee has low well-being, their performance is lower no matter how satisfied they are in their job. Basically, if everything is bad in your overall life, no matter how great your job is, you will not perform very well.
However, if you have high well-being, then job satisfaction matters! Let me give you some examples. If I am super happy, but I’m not satisfied with my job, I will not perform very well. But if I am super happy AND my job is awesome, I will be a high performer. So both job satisfaction and well-being really matter!
A happy, productive worker is someone that is happy in their job AND in their whole life!
What Does This Mean?
You can’t separate the rest of your life from your work. Your well-being overall is going to impact you in the workplace. It’s important for your career to not just focus on how you are doing at work but to focus on being happy in your life overall.
I think this result is also incredibly important for senior leaders and companies. It shows that companies should care about their employees’ overall well-being, not just whether they are happy in their jobs. Ideally, leaders would care because people run organizations and it’s the kind thing to do. However, having this tied to performance is often important in convincing companies to do what’s right.
Overall, the idea of a happy, productive worker is correct. It’s just important to remember that happiness is broader than the job.