Ask an Expert: Can a Recession Boost Employee Job Satisfaction?

Ask an Expert: Can a Recession Boost Employee Job Satisfaction?

May 20, 20234 min read

Will the United States tip into recession in 2023?

The jury for many remains out, though there are enough clouds forming on the horizon to cause consternation for firms eyeing the next financial quarter. But while recessions invariably spell belt-tightening, are they always plain bad for business? Could there be some kind of silver lining to hard times?

New research led by Goizueta Business School’s Emily Bianchi suggests there is in fact an upside to economic downturns: higher employee job satisfaction. Bianchi and colleagues from Oglethorpe and Hong Kong Polytechnic Universities have found that in times of increased financial uncertainty, people tend to think less about other opportunities or openings, and focus more on the jobs they actually have. This in turn makes us see our jobs and workplace more favorably, says Bianchi.

“It might feel counter-intuitive because there’s reason to think that tumultuous times make the workplace and workplace relations more tense or challenging. But we wanted to explore whether the security of having a job in an economic slump might positively impact the way people think about their roles and employers,” Bianchi says.

Our hunch was that fewer available jobs outside the organization may translate into greater satisfaction with the jobs we have in hand when there’s a recession.

To test this possibility, Bianchi and co-authors ran three studies. The first looked at almost 50 years of data from the U.S. General Social Survey, a cross-sectional barometer of people’s attitudes and opinions, including their assessment of the economy and satisfaction with the work they do. Through analyses of respondents’ answers between 1974 and 2016, Bianchi et al. found compelling evidence to support their hypothesis: at both the national and state level, job satisfaction rose during recessions and fell off again when the economy did better.

A second study analyzed data from the U.K. where recessions tend to hit at the same time as the United States, but can be more or less severe. Two surveys conducted by the University of Essex followed the same respondents between 1991 and 2013, allowing Bianchi et al. to measure how individual job satisfaction fluctuated with macro-economic changes. Limiting their analysis to those people who remained employed over the time period and controlling for things like age, gender and income, the researchers were able to isolate the impact of recession based on the way that a group of just over 8,500,000 employees felt about their jobs. They found the same pattern.

“By looking at the same individuals over time, we’re able to eliminate any impact coming from changes in the composition of the workforce across economic cycles,” says Bianchi.

The same pattern emerged: during bad economic times, people reported greater job satisfaction even within the same group.

Unlocking the Upside of Downturns

To dig deeper into the psychological mechanisms undergirding these patterns, Bianchi et al. ran an experiment. One group was shown “bad news” about the economy, while the other read a report on economic growth and “plentiful jobs.” Both groups were then asked to self-report on job satisfaction.

Those who had read the news article on recession and unemployment reported greater contentment with their current jobs. Moreover, when reminded of recessions, they reported that alternative jobs became less salient, which in turn led to greater job satisfaction. In other words, their own jobs were “more satisfying.”

One implication of these findings is that they challenge the notion that job satisfaction is exclusively dictated by what happens inside the organization.

We tend to think of businesses as bubbles that are somehow impervious to the outside world. But these studies show broader societal events can affect us in surprising ways.

A Silver Lining for Employers

Recessions are rarely welcome news. And for employers, they can engender feelings of hopelessness, says Bianchi. The insights shared in her paper should provide some reassurance, nonetheless, that even when the chips are down, they might have one less thing to worry about. But there’s a caveat.

Our findings suggest that there might actually be a bright side to recessions for employers; that greater job satisfaction during these difficult times might help people psychologically weather an otherwise challenging situation.

“Of course, this does not mean that employers should take advantage of this surprising goodwill by asking more of their employees. Rather, while employers likely believe that there is little they can do to bolster job satisfaction during tough times, our research suggests that satisfaction-boosting efforts may be even more effective. Moreover, our findings suggest that employers should be more attuned to bolstering satisfaction when times are good and employees are particularly apt to be looking at other opportunities.”

Interested in learning more about how a recession may impact the workplace? Then let us help with your coverage and questions.

Goizueta Business School’s Emily Bianchi is available to speak regarding this important topic - simply click on her icon now to arrange an interview today.

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  • Emily Bianchi
    Emily Bianchi Goizueta Foundation Term Associate Professor of Organization & Management

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