Three reasons why you’re unhappy in the workplace

by Dorian Minors

December 8, 2015

Analects  |  Newsletter


The Job characteristics model of work design sounds like something you’d read in an employee handbook. Almost designed to put you to sleep. But it’s one of the few models that applies well in an age where complex jobs are the norm. We’ve talked...

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The Job characteristics model of work design sounds like something you’d read in an employee handbook. Almost designed to put you to sleep. But it’s one of the few models that applies well in an age where complex jobs are the norm. We’ve talked before about how jobs are getting more complex which is resulting in higher rates of stress in the workplace but that doesn’t necessarily explain why you’re unhappy in your job (a job can be stressful but still make us happy). The JCM describes three things we need to make us happy in the workplace:

  1. Meaning – a job needs to provide us with a sense of purpose and movement towards a goal; be they personal or otherwise.
  2. Responsibility – a job should provide us with scope to be responsible for and take ownership of the work we produce.
  3. Knowledge of impact – we need to be able to see that impact of our work. If what we do makes no difference, we have no reason to do it.
But, the key lies in the characteristics of the job that allow us to experience these three things. In particular, there are five characteristics that influence them.


To get meaning from our jobs, to gain a sense of working towards a goal or purpose, we need three of the five characteristics in some combination:
  • Skill variety – the job should use many of our competencies. That means that a job needs to draw on several of our skills and abilities for us to effectively do it. This gives us a sense of personal purpose, we’re an important part of the role and our skills are valued.
  • Task identity – the job should provide a tangible output. We need to clearly be able to see where tasks start and end so we know that we’re progressing. If we can’t see that what we’re going actually results in a product, then we won’t get the feeling that we’re moving towards that greater meaning.
  • Task significance – does the job actually impact the lives and the work of others? Does what we’re doing matter? Otherwise, we wonder what the point is.
These three things provide us with a sense of meaning and depending on the context, some might be more important than others but ideally you want all three.


To get a feeling of ownership from our jobs we only really need one thing; autonomy. We need to have the freedom to make decisions within the constraints of our job. If everything we do is decided for us, we get no feeling of control over what we’re doing and can feel no responsibility (plus, we simply love the idea of freedom).

Knowledge of impact

The final job characteristic is feedback. We need feedback at both a supervisory level (i.e. someone telling you you’re doing a good job, and how) but also at an observational level. We can’t just have someone tell us that we’re doing something well, we need to be able to see the impact too.

JCM in practice

The most vital job characteristics are autonomy and feedback. These two job characteristics and their related outcomes (responsibility and knowledge of impact) are crucial to our happiness. Why? Well, feedback and autonomy are related to stress. Without adequate feedback, stress doesn’t get allieviated and without freedom to make decisions, the lack of control becomes a strain. But they’re also related to our intrinsic motivation (along with skill variety) – these things make us want to continue working for nothing more than our own personal satisfaction (as opposed to financial gain, which would be extrinsic motivation).

But the JCM doesn’t predict our happiness in every job. Only the complex ones. When the environment is unpredictable, when higher levels of skill and ability is needed, and when the behaviour and attitude of an employee has the potential to impact the performance of an organisation, the JCM provides a critical framework to understand our own happiness. JCM also refers more to people that are high in the desire to develop personally (sometimes called Growth Need Strength), and so have the ability to do more difficult and complex work.

Last word

So, if you’re unhappy in your job, don’t give up hope yet. There are several things you can do:
  • Start to focus on the competencies your tasks are requiring from you, as well as the tangible outputs and the impacts of your tasks on others. These things will help you identify the meaning in your work which will spur you on.
  • Search for autonomy, or freedom to make decisions within the constraints of your role (and, if you think you’re a good worker, look at asking for more). The more ownership you can take of the stuff you do, the more responsibility you feel. The more responsibility you feel, the more motivated you are and the better you perform.
  • Actively seek out feedback, both from your colleagues and supervisors, and from your own observations. If you can’t see how your work is affecting the world, you’ll never be quite satisfied with what you do.
Speaking of unnecessary stress in the workplace, learn how job interviews can actually make getting a job harder. Or learn how talking to yourself actually makes you perform better at work and at home (as long as you do it right). Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology.

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