Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Bad jobs worse than no jobs?

Gallup reports some intriguing findings about people's work and well-being:
American workers who are emotionally disconnected from their work and workplace -- known as "actively disengaged" workers -- rate their lives more poorly than do those who are unemployed. Forty-two percent of actively disengaged workers are thriving in their lives, compared with 48% of the unemployed. At the other end of the spectrum are "engaged" employees -- American workers who are involved in and enthusiastic about their work -- 71% of whom are thriving.
The results suggest that a bad job, at least bad in the sense that it doesn't engage or motivate you, is associated with lower well-being than no job at all.

If interpreted causally, the results further suggest that losing a bad job is actually good for you, which would be really good news in the current economy. However, that interpretation is a stretch.

Gallup's engagement measure is constructed from a series of questions that ask about expectations, feedback, relationships, and opportunities at work. Some of these questions ask about conditions that are (arguably) external to the worker, such as whether the worker gets "recognition or praise for doing good work" or receives performance reviews. I add the parenthetical term, arguably, because all of the reports come from the workers who may be viewing their employers' objective actions through a subjective lens.

However, many of the questions appear to be related to a person's general perceptions regarding his or her locus of control, that is, a person's belief that the person's own behavior can affect outcomes in his or her life. Thus, the answers to the questions may reveal as much about the respondent and about the power of positive thinking as they do about the respondent's job.

It's also hard to imagine that a negative external event like being fired would improve someone's perceived locus of control.

The question comes down to whether the engagement index reflects a bad job, a bad worker, or some combination of the two.

Gallup does caution that it's results "cannot definitively determine the direction of the causal relationship between engagement and wellbeing." However, it pushes the causal interpretation by describing disengaged workers as being in "bad jobs" and describing how employers can affect engagement.