Though the worst of the global recession may be over, unemployment rates remain elevated in the U.S. and many other countries. Gallup's U.S. unemployment measure remains above 9%, and the number of part-time workers who want full-time work climbed to 9.9%. Worldwide, 40% are employed full time by an employer, while 19% are underemployed, including 7% who are unemployed. With so many people out of work, the current "jobless recovery" doesn't feel like much of a recovery at all.
It's no small issue. As the regime changes in Egypt and Tunisia have shown, persistent joblessness can contribute to momentous social upheaval. What's more, Gallup's global surveys confirm that people who have jobs rate their overall lives more highly than those who are unemployed, particularly in economically advanced countries.
However, just having a job isn't the only way that people's jobs affect how they evaluate their quality of life. There are dramatic differences according to how they view the quality of their job. At a global level, workers' responses to Gallup's Q12 employee engagement metric -- which tracks their perceptions of 12 key workplace conditions -- are strongly related to their personal well-being.
That finding holds true for two major perspectives on subjective well-being from the work of renowned scientists Daniel Kahneman, Ph.D., Ed Diener, Ph.D., and Angus Deaton, Ph.D., among others: 1) an evaluative approach that asks people to rate the quality of their lives overall, and 2) a more immediate experiential approach that gauges people's specific emotional states.
Engagement and life ratings
To gauge evaluative well-being, Gallup asks respondents to rate their current lives using a 0-to-10 "ladder" scale, based on the Cantril Self-Anchoring Striving Scale, then asks them to rate where they predict their lives will be five years in the future. Gallup combines these responses to place individuals into one of three categories: thriving (strong, consistent, and progressing), struggling (moderate or inconsistent), or suffering (at high risk).
Among the 47,361 employees surveyed in 120 countries worldwide, 25% report life ratings high enough to put them in the thriving group. Among engaged workers, however, the figure rises to 45%, while among those who are actively disengaged, just 13% are thriving. This relationship is consistent across global regions, though it is more pronounced in some than in others.
Engagement and emotional health
Although the different ratings of engaged, not engaged, and actively disengaged employees worldwide are revealing, respondents' answers to questions about emotional states offer a clearer picture of how workplace conditions relate to their day-to-day experience. In all countries, Gallup asked respondents a series of questions about their interactions and emotions from the previous day.
The graph below shows the relationships between employee engagement and several experiential well-being measures among all respondents worldwide. Again, these relationships are present in all global regions, with some variations in degree. A few highlights are:
Almost all engaged employees -- 95% -- say they were treated with respect all day compared to about 74% of actively disengaged employees.
Eighty-eight percent of engaged employees say they experienced enjoyment for much of the previous day compared to 67% of actively disengaged employees.
Actively disengaged employees are considerably more likely than engaged employees to say they felt stressed for much of the day -- a finding that has implications for physical and emotional health.
Perhaps most alarmingly, actively disengaged employees are twice as likely as those who are engaged to say they experienced anger for much of the previous day -- 27% vs. 14%, respectively. Anger in the workplace is a major concern, as it disrupts productivity and can lead to aggressive behavior that puts coworkers at risk.
Dr. Diener, a University of Illinois psychologist who is perhaps the world's foremost authority on subjective well-being, emphasizes the benefits of positive emotions in the workplace. Happy workers, he says, are more productive, more likely to help coworkers, less likely to quit, and friendlier to customers.
Happy workers are not magic, but they can give a workplace that extra boost.
"The Gallup data suggest that this is not just an American pattern, but appears to occur all over the world," Dr. Diener says. "Happy workers are not magic, but they can give a workplace that extra boost."
Employees' responses to questions about their physical health also relate to engagement levels in most global regions. Worldwide, 22% of actively disengaged employees say they have health problems that keep them from doing what people their age can normally do. Engaged (13%) and not engaged (16%) employees are less likely to report such problems. The causality in this relationship may flow either way. In other words, health problems may lead workers to be less engaged at their jobs, or the stress caused by poor workplace conditions may lead to higher incidence of health problems among disengaged employees.
Either way, poorer physical health almost certainly contributes to lower productivity among actively disengaged workers. Twenty percent of employees in that category say they've had three or more days in the past month when poor health has kept them from doing their usual activities, compared to 13% of not engaged employees and 11% of engaged employees.
"Engaged and happy workers are a great resource for a business," Dr. Diener notes. "Not only will the worker miss fewer days, but if the employer picks up any health costs, they will be lower."
The relationship between employee engagement and sick days is particularly strong in Russia and other former Soviet republics, where low levels of employee productivity remain a crucial concern. Among these populations, actively disengaged employees are considerably more likely than engaged employees to say they had three or more sick days in the past month.
What managers can do
Ideally, high employee well-being creates a virtuous circle: Workers who are happier and more content with their lives make for a more productive workplace, and that greater productivity leads to successes that boost their well-being even further. Too often, the reverse seems to be a vicious cycle: Low worker productivity is accompanied by high levels of pessimism and physical health problems, which, in turn, lower productivity. Again, Russia -- with its productivity problems and high rates of alcoholism and suicide -- comes to mind. In environments like these, employers must be concerned with doing whatever they can to help workers avoid "negativity traps."
The consistently strong relationships between employee engagement and well-being worldwide are good news for employers. They indicate that basic markers of workplace quality -- things like making sure employees are in the right jobs and that they feel supported and appreciated -- are associated with higher levels of positivity and good health. In other words, there is much that managers and leaders can do to help employees around the globe feel like they have good jobs -- and therefore good lives.