The job satisfaction map: these are the countries where workers live best

How do you measure happiness at work? The latest data from Eurostat helps to identify what matters most to workers in the new post-Covid era.

Published On: December 12th, 2022

High, normal or low. If you had to choose between any of these options to describe your happiness at work, which would it be? In the year of the Great Resignation , this is one of the key drivers for those deciding to change their job. Measuring happiness among employees is not easy, but this year Eurostat has published new data that shows how well-being at work intersects with other factors: sex, age, contract type, sector or being self-employed are all some of the variables that the statistics office has chosen to analyse where the world’s happiest workers live.

In general, there are two countries that stand out. On the one hand, Malta is the European country with the most widespread professional optimism. “It is a country with a big tech sector. Workers live there, but they work for foreign companies”, María Obispo, Head of Talent Engagement at LLYC, points out. On the other hand, Portugal has the lowest job satisfaction in the European Union. “I can’t believe they are worse than other countries”, says Obispo.

The number of Europeans who expressed satisfaction with their job as low or non-existent was 7.6% but in France, Portugal and the Netherlands, this figure is double. Around 4% of those surveyed did not respond to the question and in Germany the ‘no response’ rate was 17%, which is why these figures should be treated with caution.

Looking back five years, it seems that in most of the European Union labor mobility made workers happier. A majority of countries have a higher rate of job satisfaction than in 2017, when the Labour Force Survey asked the same question. Only Denmark, Portugal, Poland, Lithuania, Czechia and Sweden have a lower percentage of workers responding that their job satisfaction is high.

"Labour turnover has increased in Spain and, when you look at this, you would think that people are less happy”, warns Obispo. According to a recent study by Randstad , in collaboration with the Spanish Confederation of Small Businesses, labor mobility increased by 45% compared to the year before. “This also speaks to a new way of working or looking for a new challenge, and not necessarily of dissatisfaction with the place in which you work”, she adds.

In fact, although the positive trend continues to surprise her, she does find a possible explanation: “Right now, amongst the strategic objectives of businesses with whom we work, "people" are among the top three. This was not the case before. Companies have made a start and this could explain, at best, what is behind this higher satisfaction”, Obispo confirms. “Before companies picked the workers, whereas now workers pick the companies. That greater power is in the hands of workers could be behind this change”, she says.

A question of perception

Being self-employed is another factor analysed by the study. According to the results, Denmark, Hungary and Switzerland are paradises for the self-employed, at least according to those that live there. In those countries, around 80% of those who work for themselves (without employees) claim that their job satisfaction is high.

Portugal is again at the bottom of the list. Manuel García, a researcher at the University of Sevilla and a specialist in the field of self-employment , has an idea as to why: “The labour market in Portugal might not have been able to offer them another kind of job, so they may have been forced into self-employment, hence their low level of job satisfaction". However, he is surprised too that job satisfaction in Portugal is so low.

"The difference between the sexes is interesting," continues García. Self-employed women, in general, show higher levels of satisfaction than men. The reason could be the same as above: wanting to be self-employed is not the same as being pushed into it. More male-dominated professions have experienced a process of moving from salary to self-employment, while many women have entered the labour market directly as self-employed workers.

"The 60-years-old haulier who at the age of 40 was in a company earning a salary with 26 days' holiday, now earns the same or more, but his conditions are worse: he fixes his van, has no holiday...", García says. However, there are many women who did not receive a salary before: "Many of their jobs were born directly in self-employment”, he adds.

Both Obispo and García reflect on how cultural factors and the openness of the question affect each country's answer. "It is always problematic to compare data on perceptions at an international level. Perceptions in different countries change, especially those that are intangible", such as measuring satisfaction, García insists. One way of equalising these impressions is to see if there is a relationship with the country’s position in the World Happiness Report , which is compiled annually by the United Nations. According to García, in both countries the conditions for the self-employed are not the best, so, although the position of the Portuguese is strange, "it would be more surprising if it were at the top of the table".

When comparing the job satisfaction of those who have more flexible hours with those who have less, the former always comes out ahead. This unsurprising finding is supported by the perceptions of Europeans in virtually all countries. But, moreover, in most cases, this condition is even more important than the option to work from home.

The Director of Talent Engagement at LLYC corroborates this trend. In fact, she considers that working from home, if conceived as something very rigid, can be counterproductive. "We talk a lot about the Gen Z effect, about demands that are attributed to the younger generations", such as respect for work-life balance or respect for the environment , "but these are no longer just young people's demands, there has been a contagion effect".

The survey also shows differences according to sector. In Spain, education, public administration and the arts are the areas with the highest satisfaction rates. The hotel and catering sector, on the other hand, has the lowest satisfaction rates. Just as in low-income countries, job satisfaction is more closely linked to salary than to other concepts, García confirms that professions with usually lower salaries also tend to register greater dissatisfaction.

Further data in the survey shows that in Spain the level of satisfaction increases with age, while in other countries, such as France or Portugal, it is the other way around. There are fewer surprises when it comes to the type of contract or level of education: those with permanent contracts and university graduates are happier.

Yet no matter how many parameters we measure, there is no magic formula for happiness at work and the differences between countries' perceptions and preconceptions alter this comparison. María Obispo believes that the discrepancy between the optimistic data of this survey, in comparison with others of the same style, which normally produce more negative results, may be due to the fact that, "at the time of measuring, we are in a moment of transition". According to her, in order to find out what the climate is in companies, it is no longer so reliable to ask questions; instead, artificial intelligence and natural language processing are increasingly being used.

The expert reveals that, in American companies, the budget for measuring workers' mental health has grown by 17%. Some of the techniques being tested consist of anonymised reading of conversations between employees. Although they are aware of it, she says, communication tends to become normalised. "I think workplace surveys are reaching their peak and technology is going to help a lot in understanding what is going on," says Obispo.

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