Alex Bryson, John Forth, Lucy Stokes 17 November 2014
It is generally agreed that firms can improve their employees' wellbeing through improvements in job quality – but is it in their economic interests to do so? This column reports research showing that satisfied employees and higher productivity go together. Analysis of the British Workplace Employment Relations Survey finds that employee job satisfaction is positively associated with workplace financial performance, labour productivity, and the quality of output and service.
Psychologists, economists, and others know a great deal about the determinants of individuals' wellbeing, and one key element is what they do in their working life. One recent study found that work was among the worst activities for people's momentary happiness – just above being sick in bed, in fact (Bryson and MacKerron 2013). But other studies indicate much depends on what type of job you do and how that job is designed by the employer.
The link between wellbeing and performance
There is empirical evidence linking employees' wellbeing to their individual performance. For example, greater subjective wellbeing feeds through to individuals' performance in the labour market (Judge et al. 2001, Lyubmirsky et al. 2005). There is also recent evidence of a causal link between increased wellbeing and improved worker productivity, at least in a laboratory experiment setting (Oswald et al. 2014). But the empirical evidence at the organisation level is extremely sparse.
Perhaps the most compelling evidence of a link comes from a survey of manufacturing in Finland, which found that mean workplace job satisfaction was independently associated with subsequent value-added per employee. A one point increase (on a six-point scale) in the average level of job satisfaction among workers at the plant increased the level of value-added per hour worked two years later by 3.6 percentage points, after controlling for other factors. This estimate rose to 9 percentage points in a two-stage estimation approach designed to account for unobserved establishment-level heterogeneity (Bockerman and Ilmakunnas 2012).
Our BIS report is the first study for Britain of the link between employee wellbeing and firm performance. Analysing the nationally representative 2011 Workplace Employment Relations Survey (WERS), we find that those workplaces with rising employee job satisfaction also experience improvements in workplace performance, while deteriorating employee job satisfaction is detrimental to workplace performance.
Employee job satisfaction is positively associated with workplace financial performance, labour productivity, the quality of output and service, and an additive scale combining all three aspects of performance. Workplaces experiencing an improvement in non-pecuniary job satisfaction – whether measured in terms of the average level of satisfaction in the workforce, or measured in terms of an increase in the proportion 'very satisfied' or a reduction in the proportion 'very dissatisfied' – also experience an improvement in performance.
These findings are consistent with the proposition that employers who are able to raise employees' job satisfaction may see improvements in workplace profitability (financial performance), labour productivity, and the quality of output or service.....
These are encouraging findings, but the scope of the analyses has not allowed us to explore the processes that could have been instrumental in forging the link between employee wellbeing and workplace performance. Further work is required to develop insights into how employers can facilitate the positive outcomes revealed in this study.
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