If The Office teaches us anything, it’s that people don’t always like their jobs.
The reasons vary, but statistics show that most people fall into one of three groups. In a study done by University of Chicago Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the three main workplace complaints were lack of challenge and variety, conflicts with colleagues — particularly bosses — and too much pressure. Contrary to popular conception, salaries and material benefits were not the most pressing issues for working people.
It’s obvious that people aren’t getting everything out of their jobs. But why?
In his recent book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell states that psychologists generally agree on the three primary factors that contribute to meaningful work: complexity, autonomy and a clear relationship between effort and reward.
Stripped of their psychological jargon, the concepts explain what most people need to function productively in the average workplace.
Complexity refers to work that is challenging, stimulating and demanding of a worker’s particular skills. Autonomy emerges when employees have sufficient input over how their work is controlled. A clear relationship between effort and reward simply means that a worker needs to be able to see the fruits of his labor.
Csikszentmihalyi’s study shows that the most common complaint — lack of complexity — demonstrates the need for a more stimulating workplace; a lack of challenge or variety disengages the worker from the tasks at hand and leaves his skills unused.
On the other hand, the workplace squabbles that so often lower morale are caused by a lack of autonomy. Excess pressure, another determinant of an unhappy camper, also relates to autonomy and the organization of work flow.
Regardless of Csikszentmihalvi’s findings, there’s not denying the fact that many US citizens are employed in jobs that aren’t particularly conducive to gleaning meaning from work. In an ever-pressing economic crisis, it’s hard to be picky about finding any job, much less one that complies with the three keys to workplace bliss.
However, taxing economic times only highlight the need for restructuring of individual jobs; not only is it possible to change the way jobs are designed in order to maximize their complexity, autonomy and effect-reward relationship within the confines of a growing economy, it is necessary for a vital workplace.
One study found that the lack of well-being in many occupations results in a 5-10 percent loss in the Gross National Product each year; this amount is significantly more than the economic losses due to the recession over the last year.
Perhaps in the shortterm, a massive restructuring of individual jobs would cause a decrease in productivity because of the mental and social adjustments needed to adapt to a new system of employment. But the benefits of making work stimulating for people would drastically increase productivity among employees.
Some jobs naturally follow this recipe for productivity. A university professor, for example, has the independence and authority to determine his curriculum, the challenge of educating a classroom of students who’d most likely rather be on Youtube and the ultimate reward of enriching young minds with information not readily found on Wikipedia.
The teaching profession is not the only such rewarding job, however. Cooks, engineers, taxi drivers, car mechanics — all of these jobs have the potential to be meaningful, as long as they provide challenges and allow for independence.
The main problem in the US workforce is that there are a large number of employments that don’t function this way. A factory worker might work 40 hours a week, where his primary task is feeding metal plates into a machine. In this kind of job, there is neither complexity, autonomy nor a relationship between effort and reward — there is only a surplus of free metal plates.
This kind of science is not merely of value to the sociologist or policymaker, but to every college student searching for a job or trying to discern a career path. During school and after graduation, surviving financially should be a primary concern, especially in today’s inauspicious job market.
But like any life-defining decision, choosing a major and an occupation has long-term consequences — which will last well beyond the current economic crisis.
Students should think hard about what vocation to choose. Would this job encourage autonomy, complexity and a clear relationship between effort and reward? Ultimately, happy workers help the economy.
Max Hoiland is a senior majoring in cinema-television critical studies.