No, Really, Are You Happy?: How the Media Misreports Workplace Research

A couple of days ago, while driving around, I heard a news item on a couple of local radio stations saying that fewer than half of all workers are satisfied with their jobs, but were unwilling to look for something else. This caught my ear because something I learned really quickly when I started doing job satisfaction research is that it’s very difficult to measure job satisfaction accurately, and it’s even more difficult to make broad generalizations about it.

So I did some digging and located the press release that the news item was based on. It summarizes the findings from a report by Accenture, the worldwide consulting firm, titled “The Path Forward” .

So, from the news items I heard, what did the media get wrong in reporting these results?

The first thing that jumped out at me was the subtitle of the report: “International Women’s Day 2012 Global Research Results”. None of the broadcasts that I heard mentioned anything about the report being released on International Women’s Day, or discussing gender’s effects on workplace issues. Although the report isn’t solely about gender, it would have been nice if this aspect had been mentioned  – if only as a reminder that things still aren’t equal for men and women in the workplace.

Then, I noticed that the report’s data came from (quoting from the report) “3,900 business executives from medium to large organizations across 31 countries”, with a minimum of 100 respondents per country. If we look at Canada, which was one of the countries included in the report, Statistics Canada data tells us that “management of companies and enterprises” is the occupation of about 0.08 of the Canadian workforce.

Accenture made it clear in its press release that the study involved professionals. Yet the results from a survey of this very small part of the workforce were reported in the media as being representative of all workers, which is really misleading.

According to the executive summary of the study, the question that measured job satisfaction was Which of the following statements best describe your current situation? And the possible answers were:

Satisfied: not looking for new opportunities

– Dissatisfied: not seeking for [sic] new opportunities

– Looking for another opportunity inside company

– Looking for another opportunity outside company

– Preparing to start my own business

Ack! It’s possible that more detailed questions were asked at some point, but it’s a basic principle of job satisfaction research  that you can’t measure job satisfaction accurately with a single question. Think of all the things that affect how you feel about your job on any one day – your pay, your workload, how your boss treats you, how your co-workers treat you, your working hours, the customers or clients you interact with, how comfortable (or not) your work space is, and so on. Some of those could make you feel good about your job, some of them could make you feel bad. But none of that would be captured by a single question. And, very probably,it’s also not going to be captured by a single question that also tries to determine how likely you are to look for another job.

And the Accenture report also has some very interesting findings about other important workplace issues:

– work/life balance: a majority of respondents have stayed in their jobs because they have a flexible work schedule

– proactive career management: only 11% of the respondents have not taken actions like additional training or accepting new responsibilities

– the effect of the economic downturn on careers: 44% of respondents think their career growth has slowed since 2008

And none of these were mentioned in any of the reports I heard.

Now to be fair to the media outlets that reported on this research, “59% of us are dissatisfied with our jobs” is a lot snappier and catchier than “59% of male respondents and 57% of female respondents in a survey of one very small and probably non-representative segment of the workforce indicated in response to a single question that they are dissatisfied with their jobs”.

But what this contrast points out is how important it is to look and think critically about media reports on workplace issues. What’s left out, or the lack of attention to what’s actually being said, is almost as telling as what’s communicated.

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