Happy at work: 10 years of research on job perceptions and evaluations

The average worker in Flanders is ‘rather happy at work’ according to a new study by an occupational psychologist from the Catholic University of Leuven. ‘Working in Flanders: Exhausting or agreeable?’ presents an analysis of surveys carried out over a period of 10 years by a government research directorate on how people perceive and evaluate their work. The study examines the factors that make work ‘pleasant’ and finds that a job can be stressful but also satisfying.

From 1999 to 2007, DIOVA, the directorate for the study into the improvement of working conditions within Belgium’s Federal Ministry of Work, Employment and Social Dialogue, supported and encouraged surveys on the psychosocial aspects of work in a range of companies and organisations. The objective characteristics of jobs and subjective information on how people perceive and evaluate their job were collected using the Dutch questionnaire called ‘Experience and assessment of work’ (VBBA), which covers negative and positive job aspects, risk factors and risk effects.

The dataset (in Flemish) based on these survey samples was recently made available to researchers. In Working in Flanders: Exhausting or pleasant?, Hans De Witte, an occupational psychologist from the Catholic University of Leuven (KUL), analysed the DIOVA dataset, which contains information on 35,000 employees, in association with colleagues Carissa Vets and Guy Notelaers.

Good news, on the whole

The main message of the book is that work in Flanders in generally of ‘good’ quality. Typically, people describe their work as straightforward and neither physically or emotionally exhausting. Relationships with colleagues and bosses are evaluated positively. One negative point is mental stress, caused by having to work very accurately and at high levels of concentration. Another negative is that career possibilities are considered to be limited. However, more than half of the Flemish workers consider their work to be pleasant. A majority sleep well and recover quite rapidly from a day of work. As a result, 51% of the workers surveyed evaluated their job quality as ‘good’, 36% were neutral and 14% regarded their quality of work as ‘bad’.

What makes work pleasant?

The study states that the job content in particular makes a big difference to whether the job is seen as pleasant or not. This refers to having the opportunity to develop one’s capabilities and having enough variation in tasks. Labour conditions such as wages, contract type or career possibilities are less important in determining how pleasant the job is.

Whether someone sees their work as exhausting or stressful is determined hugely by the workload and by the mental/emotional demands of the job. Having a manageable workload and a job in which you can develop various skills are most likely to lead to job satisfaction.

Stressful but satisfying

The study points out that it is difficult to say which characteristics amount to a negative assessment of a job. The findings suggest that a job can be stressful, but nevertheless pleasant. As a consequence, the study divides jobs into four categories.

  • Exhausting work: jobs that are tiring and not very pleasant. Key examples are call centre jobs and blue-collar posts such as textile work and packaging jobs.
  • Boring work: these jobs are less tiring, but are still considered unpleasant. Examples are dockworkers and helpdesk operators.
  • Pleasant jobs: less exhausting and assessed as very pleasant. These are the typical jobs of (higher) white-collar workers such as researchers and middle management, but also kitchen staff and physiotherapists.
  • Challenging jobs: exhausting, but pleasant. These are mainly jobs in the care sector such as childcare, home care, nursing and social work.

A paradoxical divide by job status

The research results show a major divide in job evaluation between blue-collar and white-collar workers. The authors speak of an important paradox in this regard. Blue-collar workers assess their job content as ‘poorer’ than white-collar workers; they experience less autonomy, less participation, less task variation and fewer opportunities to use their skills. As a consequence, they find their jobs less pleasant.

White-collar workers experience more stress at work, and more emotional or mental strain. They have a greater need for recuperation after work and worry more about their work. However, they combine these stressful elements with a ‘richer’ job description, which leads to a more pleasant job. Stress and pleasure at work are in other words characteristic of jobs with a higher status. Jobs with a lower status combine less stress with less pleasure.

Commentary

The new book by De Witte and colleagues complements the results of the Flemish Workability Monitor (WBM) (see BE060601SD, BE0710019I) by discussing some more in-depth issues. As such, it also constitutes a critique of the WBM, arguing that the issue of work–life balance should not be a key factor of the workability indicators and that ‘workability’ should be limited to job content aspects. The authors also state that the WBM focuses too much on negative job aspects which, as their study demonstrates, can be ‘balanced’ by positive aspects. Based on these remarks, the study calculates a workability index comparable to that of the WBM. The two indexes give the same share of employees as having a job of good quality (slightly above 50%), but disagree about the ‘problematic’ cases. According to the WBM, all jobs not classified as ‘good quality’ have a ‘problematic’ job quality (based on a range of 1 to 4 negative workability factors). However, the new study considers only 8% of the jobs to be ‘problematic’.

Reference

De Witte, H., Vets, C. and Notelaers, G., Werken in Vlaanderen: vermoeiend of plezierig? [Working in Flanders: Exhausting or pleasant?], Leuven, Acco, 2010.

Van Gyes Guy, Higher Institute for Labour Studies (HIVA), Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (KUL)

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