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Work to live or live to work? Social science shows what employees want

Studies show that most employees are unhappy with the way they’re under-utilised at work and with the break down of trust in their organisations. Many workers feel their employers lack integrity. With an ageing workforce on the rise, people feel increasingly pressured to delay their retirement.

In this post, I’ll focus on a discussion of what social science research can tell us about making work more meaningful for employees. My post will summarise what employees want from their work, and I’ll discuss how social science can help managers and employers improve their workplace practices.

Yearning for meaningful work

In a great podcast by the British Library, Professor Steve Bevan from The Work Foundation and Professor Sarah Vickerstaff from the University of Kent discuss whether we live to work or work to live.

Bevan’s research identifies that people are spending more time at work (an average of 42.7 hours per week in the UK). Despite this fact, living standards have fallen in comparison to 2008. Older workers are staying in the job market longer or they’re electing to become a volunteers. Why is this so?

Work is important for psychological wellbeing. Research finds that people associate meaningful work with a higher quality of life as well as the daily search for personal recognition and the need for accomplishment. Countless studies, however, find that many people are not getting this higher sense of meaning from their current career paths.

Bevan argues that “good work” should come with intrinsic motivations that encourage productivity and creativity. Instead, employees are expected to deliver more with fewer resources. In Bevan’s research, only 40% of British employees believed their workplaces act with integrity. This suggests there’s a disconnect between workers’ sense of self and what their organisation stands for (at least in their employees’ minds). Almost half of British employees think that the level of trust in their organisation has reduced rather than gotten better. Another 40% say their jobs offer them autonomy and opportunity to learn new things, meaning that most people are feeling stifled and unappreciated.

As job insecurity is increasing, Bevan asks: what is good work? This can mean different things for different people, but generally research suggests that secure, interesting jobs that help people develop their skills are ideal. Jobs where there’s a high level of trust; where people are managed fairly; and where employees feel valued. Jobs where there’s flexibility over work hours are also important. Autonomy to negotiate tasks and transparency over organisational processes that may impact on employee’s wellbeing are also essential.

Taking care of our ageing workforce

Last week, I talked about the issues that an ageing population presents for families and policy makers. Vickerstaff ‘s discussion in the British Library podcast covers the challenges for ageing workers and the paid labour force.

An ageing workforce impacts on various functions in society, not just on the economy and businesses, but also on public health and duty of care within workplaces. Vickerstaff  argues that public policy currently assumes that people might only work up to two extra years past the previously established retirement age, but in practice people feel forced to work longer.

Vickerstaff notes that social science research has produced mixed results on what older workers want. Large surveys show that people feel positive about working longer, but face to face interview research shows that people are actually ambivalent about delaying their retirement. This is because of the way in which questions are phrased. Surveys are answered quickly and there’s not much scope to capture individual nuances or to give caveats on answers. People generally haven’t given a lot of thought to how they will manage work in their older age, so surveys only capture a superficial overview. This is important to see how many people agree or disagree on certain issues, but it doesn’t tell us much about why people think in certain ways.

When asked more in depth questions, Vickerstaff  finds that people have mixed feelings about working past their ideal retirement age. People feel attached to working even if they’re unhappy with their current job. Some older people who are officially retired continue working either in casual paid work or via volunteering.

There are gendered reasons as to why this happens. Women tend to give social reasons for continuing their work past retirement. For example, they say they like keeping busy or they enjoy the social connections from their work. Men give more material reasons for working past retirement, such feeling a need to maintain a certain level of income.

During the question time, someone asked Vickerstaff  to talk about volunteering – perhaps people enjoy volunteering because it doesn’t come with the same level of responsibility? Is volunteering more enjoyable than paid work because we’re not obligated to go? Vickerstaff  says no – what people enjoy about volunteering is the same as what they enjoy about work. That is, if your skills are being utilised and you’re not restrained in your ability to do your job well, both paid work and volunteering have mental health and social benefits.

Vickerstaff  finds that many older workers experience a sense of health pessimism. This refers not just to being physically unwell but worrying about being unwell. Research finds that people are concerned about dying before they’ve retied and having lived an unhappy life as a result. Vickerstaff  says that many of us are beginning to feel that

We’re too old to work but increasingly too young to retire.

– Prof Sarah Vickerstaff

What social science can teach employers

I see that this podcast raises some important contributions by social science research. Employers who care about the quality of work and life of their employees can draw the following lessons: employee satisfaction and wellbeing, what employees want, and worplace policies.

Insight on employee satisfaction and wellbeing

Surveys conducted by HR or marketing firms can sometimes produce an incomplete picture of employees’ experiences. Research designed by social scientists offers a scientific and in-depth framework for going beneath “surface level” answers. Surface level surveys sometimes find that employees are relatively satisfied about their work or that they’re confident about retirement. In-depth social science research, such as interviews, actually show that employees have mixed feelings about what their work means, and that feel trepidation about their retirement plans.

Social scientists are expertly trained to identify complex reasoning and ambiguities. As we saw above, social science research is able to show what people find meaningful about work and what they expect from their employers.

Identify what employees want

Social Science research shows that employees are unhappy with the way their employers mistreat them. They feel under-utilised and under-valued. They feel as if their company’s integrity does not match their ideals. Social scientists can help to identify the issues that employees care about, as well as target ways to bring organisational practices more aligned with what employees need.

Employees who are happy and who feel valued and listened to are more productive. They are more likely to keep working when they want to, no simply because they feel forced to.

A Brown Latin woman with glasses talks to a white woman at an event. Ext: Social science can help identify what employees want

Shape workplace policies

Using established methods and theories, social scientists are able to set practical plans of action to establish positive workplace changes. This includes setting reasonable goals, liaising between employees and employers, evaluating current practices, and monitoring effectiveness of changes. There is a broader connection between corporate practises and social policy.

Businesses need to be more proactive in their cooperation with Governments in order to adequately prepare for an ageing population. Superannuation contributions are not enough. Workers who feel pressured to work past retirement experience a lower quality of life. This impacts on the success and growth of companies. Employers therefore have a moral and economic basis to seek out research, advice and other assistance to help them better prepare for the future. Social science is therefore an important resource for corporate responsibility and a tool to help boost productivity and professional satisfaction amongst workers.

Listen to the podcast to hear more about how social science research can help dispel myths about work and life satisfaction among employees.

Source: J.D. Hancock via Flickr. Adapted by SSI.

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