The saddest of a very sad bunch

February 25, 2000

If it's job satisfaction, low stress and a happy home life you're after, you're in the wrong job, Michael Rose warns lecturers

When we compiled a table on job satisfaction we expected university teachers to come out low - but not quite as low as they did. Finding oneself at 107 out of 143 was a nasty surprise.

But whenever challenging jobs start disintegrating into low-skilled elements and production-line mentality pervades management, expect trouble.

Professional occupations began appearing on the lower rungs of the job satisfaction ladder in the 1980s. Solicitors, for example, who now often set daily customer billing targets, are way down there. With growing pressures from wall-to-wall teaching quality assessments, research assessment exercises, other ad hoc audits and declining staff:student ratios, and with melt-down close among exhausted technicians and non-stop administrators, you would expect university teachers to be less than overjoyed with their lot.

This has become clear in our Work Centrality and Careers project, based at Bath University and part of the Economic and Social Research Council's Future of Work programme. The project is analysing 40,000 survey observations of British employees made since 1986 to pinpoint trends in job attitudes in the United Kingdom's working population. At the heart of analysis are the 140 or so largest occupations officially recognised in the Standard Occupational Classification. The latest results will be published next week in the report Future Tense.

They show that low job satisfaction is only a part of the story. Job satisfaction does not equate with "happiness". As well as examining job satisfaction, we also looked at levels of expressed happiness. There is a slight positive link between higher job satisfaction and reporting recent feelings of happiness and a negative link with reporting feelings of depression. Being in one state is 4 per cent likely to predict the other state. But statistically, that is paltry. Having rotten job satisfaction by no means condemns one to unhappiness.

Our results provide striking examples of this, with assembly workers and bus and coach drivers leaping from dismal ratings for job satisfaction to comfortably high positions on "feelgood" points. They may not be brimming with uncontrollable euphoria, but they are a lot more cheerful than - yes, here we go again - university teaching professionals. Rather than doing better on the feelgood scale than on the job satisfaction measure, we do worse, much worse. University teachers take 138th position out of 143 for feelgood.

Poor scores on the feelgood scale are closely related to something nastier - experience of increased stress. The statistical link here is ten times stronger than that between happiness and job satisfaction. So we would expect university teachers to perform rather badly on a measure of stress experience. They do. They also report high rates of definite stress symptoms - lost sleep, cardiac troubles, anxiety and so on.

For self-reported stress, university teachers come in fifth place, after advertising and public relations managers, local government officers, special education teachers and - clear top stress victims - trades union officials.

Could things be worse? Yes, if you are a female university teacher. Among employees from all professions, 21 per cent of males and per cent of females report recently increased daily stress. Among university teachers, 32 per cent of males and 48 per cent of females report increases in their experience of stress.

Putting the three wellbeing dimensions together - job satisfaction, feelgood and stress levels - it is possible to produce a Job Misery Index to show absence of wellbeing linked to occupation. University teaching professionals are at number one.

Michael Rose is visiting professor, social research, University of Bath. Future Tense: Are Growing Occupations Stressed-out and Depressed? is published next week. The working papers are available online at www.bath.ac.uk/hssmjr. Other information on Future of Work is available online at www.leeds.ac.uk/esrcfutureofwork or www.esrc.ac.uk

Do you feel miserable enough to top the occupational misery index?

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