“It just doesn’t pay enough.”
We’ve all said this about a job at one time or another, and it’s never really just about our paycheck. We feel underappreciated and overutilized. We are dissatisfied with many things all at once, but feel like the idea of “pay” captures all of it best when we try to describe what we dislike about our job.
Does this feeling hold a lot of truth, a little bit, or is it way off? Would a lavish salary make us happier employees, and consequently create a more positive work environment?
Some well-paid scientists at the University of Illinois wondered a related question in the 80s. Their study found that people in the highest-income group were happy 25% more often than those in the lowest-income group. So, in essence, if we compared a day in the life of Mr. Donald Trump to that of a single mother living under the poverty line, the former would be happy only a few more hours per day than the latter. This gap in happiness frequency shrinks the more we raise the lower-income group, to where the richest are happier only a tenth more often (an hour or so per waking day) than those with average wealth. A published study named The Quality of American Life put it quite simply and bluntly: one’s financial situation is one of the least influential factors on life satisfaction.
So money doesn’t equal happiness? Have I been lied to my entire life?!
It turns out that money, or pay, is important, but not in the way we all think. The right pay doesn’t have to be high, but it must be high enough to take any money-related concerns off the table. It’s very much like food, in that it is only important until one is genuinely full. Once a certain personal threshold which calms all financial hunger pangs is met, increasing pay does very little to increase our happiness at work or in life.
This is one reason why assessing and improving a workplace culture is so complex. The best workplaces don’t give everyone a glamorous salary. The best workplaces foster the three key relationships that can organically build a culture: employees and their management, employees and their work, and employees and their colleagues. These are built on intangibles like trust, communication, and empowerment. Building these relationships offers numerous benefits, like a more loyal and engaged staff, savings in attrition and training, and the opportunity to be known as a great workplace and draw top talent. And while many companies with a great workplace culture offer generous pay, none of them make it the job satisfaction silver bullet. Great pay will help keep people in their office chairs, but it won’t completely engage their hearts and minds. In order to do that, you need to go deeper than their pockets.