Satisfaction not guaranteed

Job fulfilment and job comfort are different and impossible to reflect fully in quality-of-life indices, argues Linda Evans

April 3, 2008

Imagine this scenario: you're an academic nearing the end of your tether. You don't get on with your colleagues, you're given more teaching than you feel is reasonable and your boss seems intent on making your life a misery. On Thursday morning you rush to the library, snatch up Times Higher Education and start jotting down details of jobs you're eager to apply for ...

But then you remember what makes working at your university worthwhile. A smile breaks out on your face - one of recognition of how short-sighted you've been. A warm feeling of contentment oozes through your body as you recall the things that make it difficult to leave ... Free use of the sports centre, discounts from a handful of companies and - best of all - access to a complementary medicine course at a reduced rate.

Realising you've been hasty, you put away your pen, fling the magazine back and skip merrily off to your next class of first-year undergrads, wondering if there's time to stop off at the campus supermarket and pick up a box of cream cakes to share with your colleagues.

I don't think so.

While I have no wish to deride benefits packages such as those enjoyed by staff at the University of Lincoln ("Where the grass is greener", 6 March), I'm sure the vice-chancellor, David Chiddick, would agree that this scenario could only ever occur at the University of Cloud-Cuckoo-Land. Lincoln's academics may, indeed, avail themselves of a free daily hour on the treadmill, confident that if they are unfortunate enough to pull a muscle they'll get a good deal with a local chiropractor, but such benefits have very limited - if any - retention and recruitment value.

But what does affect work-related attitudes? Is it, as the article suggests, a question of "weighing up job satisfaction against extracurricular factors such as local house prices, local schools and even the weather"? Well, it depends on what you mean by "job satisfaction". Satisfaction is an ambiguous word. It's used to refer to what is satisfactory and also to what is satisfying or, put another way, satisfied with or satisfied by something. This may seem like nit-picking but it's key to understanding job satisfaction, revealing it to be a common term for two distinct concepts, which I call job fulfilment and job comfort. My research has revealed that it's those aspects of academics' work that they find satisfying - the job fulfilment factors - that sustain their motivation and enthusiasm. Job comfort factors, on the other hand, are things that determine how satisfactory, rather than how satisfying, the job is.

Job comfort factors can be deceptive. On the one hand, those taken-for-granted things that may make the job pleasantly acceptable - adequate car-parking; a short journey to work; collegial camaraderie - usually go unnoticed when they're present, but can grind you down when they're lacking. It's then that the job becomes unsatisfactory. Negative job comfort factors should never be underestimated; they can easily turn into resignation issues.

Yet I very much doubt disenchanted academics will consult the Times Higher Education quality-of-life index, because what it can't tell people is whether their new work contexts are likely to be "compromising" or "uncompromising" - a fundamental determinant of job satisfaction. I now work at a university that, despite ranking 84th in the index, provides me with a work context that is "uncompromising" since it doesn't require me to compromise on my values, ideologies and ways of working. Its supportive culture of collegiality suits me, its pursuit of excellence motivates me and since I like my colleagues and am happy with my boss most of my job-related ideals are realised. But that could change, because neither work contexts nor ideals remain static. Moreover, since everyone's ideals are different, the key to attracting and retaining staff is neither formulaic nor "indexable"; it involves flexibility, individualisation and differentiation, combined with consideration and even-handedness.

As for those academics "working evenings, weekends and holidays to maintain a high research profile" ... my guess is that their sights are fixed on the city of dreaming spires - no matter what its ranking in any quality-of-life index!

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