Will Coronavirus Make Us Appreciate Our Jobs Again?

COVID-19 has sidelined millions of workers. Will it recharge our batteries?

Posted Mar 25, 2020

Flickr / Lyncconf Games
Source: Flickr / Lyncconf Games

In a recent press conference, Donald Trump said that America "wasn't built to be shut down." Perhaps the more accurate statement is: People aren't built to be unemployed.

In fact, numerous psychological studies highlight the downsides of unemployment. One study found that joblessness significantly reduced life satisfaction. Another study found that employed people lived longer, healthier lives. Other research has suggested that employment can protect people from premature cognitive decline

With millions of workers sidelined due to the coronavirus pandemic, it is a good time to reflect on the importance of work in everyday life. Sure, it's easy to get down on our jobs after a bad day or a bad week, but we must remember just how important our jobs and careers are to our mental health. Often, it is from our jobs that we derive purpose and meaning from life. Without them, we would be far less happy.

While science roundly concludes that work makes us happy, it is also worth noting that not all work is created equal.

What kind of work makes people happiest? That depends on the type of person you are, but psychologists have identified some key themes that tend to coincide with people who love their jobs. For one, the idea of "mattering" is critical in any work setting. If you feel like your contributions matter to the overall success of the organization, you are much more likely to enjoy your job. This also means you'll likely have better work outcomes (for instance, more promotions, better pay, longer tenure, etc.). On the other hand, if you feel like your contributions aren't being recognized or that your efforts don't matter, it's likely that you are, or will become, unhappy in your current employment situation. 

Another critical component of job satisfaction is feeling like you have a high degree of personal autonomy. This is something that wealthy people have figured out. The data show that millionaires are more likely to engage in work that is self-directed or offers significant personal autonomy. The data also show that millionaires tend to be happier than non-millionaires, which might be partly explained by the type of work they choose to take on.

A third consideration has to do with the industry you choose to work in. Research by the economists Jan-Emmanuel De Neve and George Ward found that blue-collar workers score lower on measures of life satisfaction than white-collar workers. They write, "White-collar workers generally report experiencing more positive emotional states such as smiling, laughing, enjoyment, and fewer negative ones like feelings of worry, stress, sadness, and anger."

In terms of specific industries, De Neve and Ward found that executive and professional work was associated with the highest levels of life satisfaction. Of the eleven professional categories they examined, they found the following rankings (in terms of life satisfaction):

  1. Manager/Executive/Official
  2. Professional
  3. Clerical or Office
  4. Business Owner
  5. Sales
  6. Service
  7. Construction or Mining
  8. Manufacturing
  9. Transport
  10. Farming/Fishing/Forestry
  11. Installation or Repair

At the end of the day, what's most important is that we have a job. We might hate them while we're there, but we sure do appreciate them when they're gone. Let's hope that America gets back to work soon.