“The best way to appreciate your job is to imagine yourself without one.”

— Oscar Wilde

“Without work, all life goes rotten. But when work is soulless, life stifles and dies.”

— Albert Camus

“Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress. Working hard for something we love is called passion.”

– Simon Sinek

“Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it.”

— Stephen Hawking

“It’s not how much money we make that ultimately makes us happy between 9 and 5. It’s whether or not our work fulfills us.”

— Malcolm Gladwell

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”

— Steve Jobs

“I’d rather be a failure at something I love than succeed at something I hate.”

— George Burns

“Work is love made visible.”

— Kahlil Gibran

People don’t quit jobs they love or are at least reasonably satisfied with. They quit when they are not adequately satisfied and see something better that is available. Given that most of us are addicted to eating regularly and having a roof over our heads, the only real choice we have is mostly what we decide to work at, not whether to work. Great Resignation is mostly Great Job Change.

There are many studies of “job quality” and “job satisfaction” by academics and government agencies. These often get very complex, as you would expect. “Simple” is not in their job descriptions.

Very high quit rates such as we have today (3% in November 2021, relative to the long-term average of around 2% a month – see chart below) seem to indicate more than optimism about the future. My sense is that it may also reflect some very serious levels of job dissatisfaction within the broad workforce. Low “job quality” in reality?

From CNBC:

“In a phenomenon that has been labeled the Great Resignation, workers have been leaving their positions partly in response to increased mobility in the labor market as job openings strongly outnumber those looking for work.”

“For November, the number of job openings totaled 10.56 million, lower than the 11 million estimate from FactSet and a decline from 11.09 million in October. The level, however, was well ahead of the 6.88 million total of those out of work and looking for jobs in November, according to the government’s nonfarm payrolls report for that month.”

BLS monthly quits rate over the past 20 years

So, what is “job quality” to us normal folks?

You just know that anything to do with “jobs” in the U.S. today is of major interest to government and to academia. Among many others. “Job quality” sounds important so surely it is being measured by hordes of experts. Surely.

Anything of importance today also has some kind of “index” being tracked by somebody. Like maybe a “Job Quality Index (JQI)”? Nah – too hard to define. But not for experts. We do in fact have a JQI, you will not be surprised to hear:

About the JQI. The U.S. Private Sector Job Quality Index (JQI) assesses job quality in the United States by measuring desirable higher-wage/higher-hour jobs versus lower-wage/lower-hour jobs. The JQI results also may serve as a proxy for the overall health of the U.S. jobs market, since the index enables month-by-month tracking of the direction and degree of change in high-to-low job composition.”

Job quality in this measure is based on seasonally-adjusted average weekly hours, average hourly wage, and total employment earnings for production and non-supervisory jobs. To calculate the index’s value, the researchers split up the jobs created every month into those that pay above average and those that pay below average, and then divide one figure into the other. An index value below 100 means there are more lower-paying jobs relative to higher-paying jobs; a value above 100 means the opposite. The latest JQI value of 81.2 means that there are 81.2 high-paying jobs for every 100 low-paying jobs. In 1990, the index was 95.

The JQI chart below shows the index falling from 95 in 1990 to about 81 in late 2021.

A proprietary Job Quality Index metric

You will understand immediately that this downward trend mainly reflects the loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs and the growth of lower-paying service jobs over this period. But does this reflect “job quality” or just job-mix trends? The latter, I think.

How might we normal folks define “job quality” in practice?

I’ll bet that virtually all of you out there could easily make a list of factors affecting your personal perception of job quality. Not an economist’s perception but just your own. My list of job quality factors will probably be somewhat different from yours but there are quite a few factors that we might list in common. However …

What’s a “job” these days?

Nothing is simple today. People in the distant past of a few years ago used to have regular employment along the 9-5 lines, with a regular paycheck. And a commute to a workplace shared by your fellow workers. Now we have remote workers, hybrid workers, gig workers, freelancers, and folks with multiple jobs. Defining a “job” as something you do to earning a living has morphed into “jobs” you do to earn a living. How can you assess your “job” quality if you in reality work at several “jobs”? And maybe even these “jobs” change substantially in nature and quite often. What a mess.

The solution I think is that your “job” today is in fact your “work”, which may be multiple, changing, and non-routine jobs. It is stuff you do each day to earn a living. Using the term “work” is probably better than using “stuff”, so “work” it is.

Note that this definition would cover a primary or “full-time” traditional job that we may currently supplement with a variety of side-hustles. New world.

Assessing “work quality” instead of “job quality”

If you peruse the huge number of “job satisfaction” surveys out there, you will see mostly surveys designed to address the quaint historical artifact formerly called a job. These mostly don’t handle amorphous “work” stuff like we have today.

Now that we have redefined a job into what-we-get paid-for-doing (aka work), the next step is to figure out the set of factors that we might use to assess the “quality” of our work. Umm … what’s “quality” in this context?

For example, say you have a very friendly cat that likes to sleep on your keyboard and butt into your Zoom calls unpredictably. Might there be a need for a “cat-related” work quality factor? Or is this something that you control (assuming anyone actually controls a cat) and therefore does not belong on a list that should include factors not under your control? Right, no cat factors.

Cat-related work quality factor
Cat-related work quality factor?

This rather uninspired example actually gets at the heart of what we are now calling “work quality” or “work satisfaction”. The factor list should include only things that we cannot control directly – things that can be “controlled” only by “quitting” our work, or some major annoying aspect thereof.

Quitting a job or its work-equivalent is a major step for most of us. We really have to be dissatisfied with one or more such factors, plus there must be some prospects of attractive alternative work that we might realistically pursue. But only if you are addicted to eating and shelter and such niceties, of course.

Step 1 in assessing work quality therefore is identifying factors that (i) are not under our control and that (ii) can be removed only by changing our “work”.

Work quality factors that are not under our direct control

These are things that go with the work we do to earn a living. They are largely or completely non-negotiable.

Not all of these are negatives of course. Quite a number may be strongly-favored positives. Both are needed to properly characterize work quality.

Keep in mind also that each of us will perceive the factors on our hopefully common list differently. You may thrive under fast-paced demanding work conditions while I may regard these exact same conditions as terrible, or worse.

In addition, items on our “common list” of work quality factors may not be of equal importance to everyone. Some folks may give highest importance ratings to “opportunities for advancement” or “ability to work remotely”, while others may regard “flexible working hours” or “opportunities for learning” highest.

This means that quality scoring must weight each person’s factor ratings differently based on the person’s importance ratings. It also means that for any particular set of work quality factors, which effectively specifies the work itself in most cases, the work quality assessment will likely be different for each person.

Standard “job satisfaction” surveys typically address a fairly narrow range of jobs and may also weight each factor’s importance equally across both factors and workers. For today’s work environment, neither of these limitations will give what I’d consider a reliable work quality assessment.

A suggested list of work quality factors

The list below contains what I could dig up from a number of sources on “job satisfaction” or “job quality”. There are probably a bunch more but these seem to cover the basics. Please let me know if you think that I have missed anything really important to you (I am building an assessment tool right now – see below).

Factor ratings would be based on your primary earnings source(s). This may be a bit tough to do if you have several or even many changing earnings sources. The goal here is to assess the quality of your work as a whole rather than any particular earnings source.

You will note in the list quite a few factors that may not be entirely clear, or that may mean different things to different folks. That’s okay – lack of clarity and ambiguity are only important if you are comparing my assessment with your assessment. If you are only looking at your personal assessment, then your understandings are what counts.

Even looking only at your own assessment makes interpretations difficult. If my overall assessment comes out at, say, “50%”, what does this actually mean? “Half-satisfied” doesn’t really grab me, but maybe it could be a lot worse. Or better. How so?

Each person’s assessment is likely to have some great factors and some pretty awful factors. Say they tally up to “50%”, whatever that means. Suppose you then look at the most-important-high’s and the most-important-low’s. What might you be able do to build on the high’s and to repair as best you can the major “low’s”? Then, after a while, assess your work quality again to see if whatever you just did has made any difference. This is a comparison across time, not across people.

A starting list of work quality factors
A list of work quality factors

Try to fix what most needs fixing

This approach is actually an alternative to simply joining the Great Resignation as a fix. You may be able to change enough of whatever your work situation makes possible so as to achieve an acceptably good work quality overall. If not, maybe you were not focusing your work-fix efforts sharply and creatively enough. They don’t teach work-fixing in b-schools or other places so far as I am aware. So, what to do?

An example: Work scheduling flexibility. Note that this critter is different from Work hours and flexibility. Suppose that your current work is heavily tied to the output of co-workers. You move largely at their pace and timing, not yours. I have been there and I know that this situation typically sucks, speaking technically. So what might you be able to do about this?

One nasty aspect of such situations is that you may often have no idea about when “their output” will become available. Sound familiar? You might try asking for, or requiring, a schedule, based on “your need to accommodate your other work or work-related activities like training”. Then, if they miss their scheduled commitments? Too bad – here’s my next open slot. Scheduling yourself and sticking to your schedule may have many other benefits.

Kind of lame? Of course, but what you might actually be able to do depends on your work situation, your personal forcefulness and leverage, and much else. You may, for example, even be able to get the target workflow redesigned to increase its scheduling flexibility at your end.

After you have tried a bit of this fix-it approach, you might want to reassess your work quality to see if anything has improved enough to maybe make it worth continuing (the work and the fixing) and postponing your Great Resignation participation.

A self-assessment tool for work quality

At this point, I was ready to try it out on myself. All I needed was a suitable work quality assessment tool: The right set of factors and an explicit adjustment of each factor for importance to me. Must be something out there like this, right? My search, as you probably guessed, came up empty. Amazing.

Anyhow, that led me to start mocking up something that did what I wanted so I could use it to discover what I really needed. As always, this proved a bit trickier than I had initially thought. Some law of nature operating here, I think.

In any case, plan is to put the tool up on this website in the Tools & Examples section and to make it free to use (for registered visitors). FYI – WordPress stores special user data like work quality tool output in its own database but only for registered users.

In the mockup clip example shown below on “Work scheduling flexibility”, I checked “Agree” for the factor statement that “… I have great flexibility in how I schedule my work.”. In most of what I do, I have extremely great flexibility; in a portion, however, I have far less flexibility (as in “… is it done yet? No, then when?”, repeated daily if not hourly). Overall, “Agree” seems about right for my work here.

In terms of “Importance to me”, my 3-star rating reflects my general willingness to go along with an externally-set schedule. Schedule is indeed important to me but I am not rigid here. Case-by-case, I think, is where I mostly come out.

So, how would you respond to this work quality factor for your work situation?

Assuming that the world behaves itself over the next couple of weeks, I should have the tool up on the website ready for its initial users. If you want to be notified when this happens, please let me know.

An example of a completed work quality factor assessment
Example of a work quality factor assessment

Bottom line:

Job “quits” hit another record high in November 2021 of 4.5 million – 3% of total employment. In just one month. Of course this reflects people changing jobs since most still need to earn a living. A high quits rate is generally thought to reflect high worker confidence in economic conditions and opportunities, but this Great Resignation tsunami may also reflect serious worker job quality dissatisfaction. But what is “job quality” in practice? Especially today? A free work quality self-assessment tool is on the way.

Related Reading

  • More on the proprietary Job Quality Index from its manufacturer:

“By tracking this information, policymakers and financial market participants can be more fully informed of past developments, current trends, and likely future developments in the absence of policy intervention. Economists and international organizations have in recent years developed other, complementary conceptions of job quality such as those addressing the emotional satisfaction employees derive from their jobs.”

“For the purposes of this JQI, ‘job quality’ means the weekly dollar-income a job generates for an employee. Payment, after all, is a primary reason why people work: the income generated by a job being necessary to maintain a standard of living, to provide for the essentials of life and, hopefully, to save for retirement, among other things.”

“The U.S. Private Sector Job Quality Index (patent pending) is a joint development of the Program on the Law and Regulation of Financial Institutions and Markets at the Jack G. Clarke Institute of Cornell Law School, the University of Missouri Kansas City Department of Economics, the Coalition for a Prosperous America, and the Global Institute for Sustainable Prosperity.”

  • The OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) has a more general point-of-view for “job quality” as it might be addressed by its 38 member countries: “The importance of quality jobs”:

“Traditionally, the quality of jobs is associated with the level of earnings and security a job provides. However, a growing body of research shows that the characteristics of ones working environment also play a significant role in an employee’s well-being.”

“Jobs differ in terms of how much effort they require. Some jobs are very demanding, requiring the worker not only to put in extra hours but also to work at a high speed, and be bound to tight deadlines which can be emotionally draining. These high demand jobs can be stressful and challenging, yet they could also be motivational, stimulating and rewarding. Conversely, those requiring low effort can be relaxing, but at the same time dull. The level of resources workers have at workplace is a critical factor that determines to what extent high work effort creates stress and strain or the extent to which it can be stimulating. For instance, the level of autonomy one has on how to carry out their daily tasks, support they receive from their colleagues and managers, and having clear tasks and targets and learning opportunities not only buffer the potential negative consequences demanding jobs may have but also provide workers opportunities for self-development and self-realization.  Therefore, a balanced workplace where one possesses sufficient resources with respect to the demands of their job is crucial for employee motivation and productivity, and most importantly employee well-being.”

“Building on a multidimensional approach to job quality, the OECD’s project focuses on the share and intensity of high-strain jobs across OECD countries, and the implications of these jobs for workers’ well-being. Evidence from epidemiological studies indicate that workers in high-strain jobs, that is jobs with high demands but with little workplace resources, are more likely to suffer from burnout, to develop musculoskeletal disorders, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and mental health problems. The list is long, and deserves attention. To take an example, a recent study published by Harvard researchers suggests that women in demanding and stressful jobs have a 38% increased risk of heart disease. And compared with those in low-strain jobs, they have a 67% raised risk of a heart attack. This is worrying as high-strain jobs are relatively widespread. A recent OECD study shows that in Europe, 20% of employees report difficult work situations, facing multiple job stressors without adequate support and resources to cope with. And half of these workers in high-strain jobs report that work impairs their health, compared to only 15% for those in low-strain jobs. This latter group also fare better in terms of mental health. European workers in high strained jobs report the lowest level of job satisfaction and positive emotions, such as feeling cheerful, in good spirit, calm and relaxed, whereas they report the highest level of negative emotions such as stress. Risk factors such as workplace intimidation and dangerous working conditions are among the most detrimental aspects of poor working conditions on employee well-being. Social support at work, received from the manager or colleagues, make a remarkable difference in employee satisfaction and mental well-being.”

I quit my corporate job. Cliché, anyone? After 5 years at one of the world’s biggest and best advertising agencies, I resigned to co-found a new business. Two weeks before the pandemic. With less than 2 months’ savings to my name. I know, I know — can’t expect everyone to be that lucky.”

“Thing is, I’d figured out that working for an agency was a dead end for me. I’d been doing everything ‘right’ but enjoying it less and less, and my salary was ridiculous by both London and industry standards. I could have gone to a less legendary agency for more pay, but money wasn’t my main beef. If you’re miserable at the best company in your sector, perhaps it’s not the company that’s the problem.”

“Simply changing jobs would have been as effective as changing your hairstyle in the hopes of fixing a subzero self-esteem (exciting for a day, before you go straight to Hello Darkness My Old Friend).”

At least the cat is off the keyboard so I can sleep
At least the cat is off the keyboard so I can sleep