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Happiness: the neglected role of job design

31 May 2011 Leicester, University of

People who are given greater variety and independence in their jobs feel both less stressed and more satisfied, according to findings which suggest that several management practices designed to make employees more efficient also make them happier.

Employees are also more likely to be happy when management readily shares information and consults with them, the study shows.

Stephen Wood, the University of Leicester Professor of Management who led the research, said: “The way jobs are designed has a huge impact on employees’ sense of happiness at work. But this is in danger of being neglected, at a time when people are worrying about unemployment, job security and the fairness of large salaries.” 

The research measures two separate forms of well-being: anxiety and job satisfaction. It tests to see whether either is different in workplaces where executives practise what management gurus call “high performance work systems”: boosting performance by giving people greater involvement in their own companies. This includes granting employees more variety and autonomy – what Wood calls “enriched jobs”. It also includes “informative management”: telling people more about changes in their company, including staffing and its overall financial performance. Another example is greater consultation between bosses and employees where both sides can put forward their views: “consultative management”.

Professor Wood says: “The current government’s desire to measure our well-being seems

largely to have provoked public debates about whether money can make us happy. This research shows there are ways of treating people at work that can make them happier, which have little to do with money.”

The study is reported in a paper written by Professor Wood and Lilian de Menezes, Professor at Cass Business School in London. The paper suggests that in particular, “Enriched jobs appear to be key to well-being at work.” The report adds: “An enriched job may also increase opportunities for skill use and development, job variety, and the sense of being valued or playing a significant role in the organization or society, thus adding to the potential impact on well-being.”

Taking the findings into the practical realm, the authors recommend: “Our study implies that priority should be given to initiatives that enrich jobs, enhance consultation and improve information sharing and consultation.”  Wood also stresses that future surveys of well-being organised by the government should include the quality of work. The government is still discussing how precisely to measure well-being.

The study also shows that performance-related pay, one widely-used management tenet of high performance work systems, makes no difference to satisfaction or stress.  Performance-related pay includes bonuses given to City workers and other employees.

The research is based on data from the government’s 2004 Workplace Employee Relations Survey, which involved 22,451 employees at 2,295 workplaces in the UK. Professors Wood and de Menezes used data gathered from questionnaires filled out by the employees and the interviews with managers at the same workplaces.

For example, managers were asked whether they designed core jobs so employees had “a lot” of influence over how they did their work at one extreme, or no influence at the other. Employees were asked about their well-being at work, such as whether they felt tense “all of the time” at one end, to “never” at the other.

The analysis then correlated the measures of management practice, such as how managers design jobs, with the measures of the well-being of employees.

While the study presents practical evidence of how to make people happier at work, other research suggests there has been a long-term decline in job autonomy – although it may have stabilized recently at a low level. Individual autonomy at British call centres, for example, is exceptionally low compared with other countries, according to another study by Professor Wood and David Holman of Manchester Business School.

Attached files

  • Professor Stephen Wood of the University of Leicester School of Management.


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