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Moderation in all things

by Mark I. Schickman

What brings job satisfaction to employees is a key inquiry for every HR professional. And, as we have written before, that answer changes with the times and with the circumstances. Boomers wanted job security and were often most comfortable when they were taking detailed instructions from supervisors.

Successively, those values have been stripped away. Job security became more ephemeral, as industry stalwarts disappeared. Top-down directions went out of vogue as a younger generation was hired to provide new and different skill sets and was prized for thinking outside the box. For them, satisfaction was more often tied to a sense of participation and accomplishment.

Where does cash fit into that equation? Like many other things, its value has become cyclical. The excess of the 1980s has returned, with new employees working long hours and commanding huge salaries. If today’s motto isn’t “Greed is good,” it has at least become “Greed is acceptable.” If you have any doubt about the proliferation of cash, try to rent or buy a house in any major job market in California.

But as was the case in the Gordon Gecko era, a backlash is emerging. People need enough to live on for sure—up to $75,000 annually for a working household in many California locations. But beyond that, higher incomes often haven’t led to the satisfaction one would expect.

Wall Street is under renewed scrutiny over its high-pressure, dog-eat-dog atmosphere. Last year, Fortune magazine published an article titled “Is there a suicide contagion on Wall Street?” after the deaths of so many young staffers who presumably couldn’t take the stress. Similarly, on June 1, the New York Times ran an article about the suspected suicide of Sarvshreshth Gupta.

Stressed from all-nighters and 100-hour weeks, Gupta, a rookie analyst at Goldman Sachs, tried to resign, citing “too much work and too little time.” But, under pressure from his father and the firm, he returned to work. Soon after telling his father he hadn’t slept for days because of the crush of work, he was found dead from a fall from his apartment.

With the suicide rate of Wall Street analysts at 150 percent of the national average, financial companies are telling employees to take off a few weekend days a month. But when the culture dictates 90-hour weeks, peer pressure usually trumps formal rules.

Part stimulation and stress, a smidgen of relaxation
A recent survey of the legal profession makes a very similar point. The most satisfied lawyers are those who make the least, according to a survey published in the New York Times in May. The happiest lawyers are those who hold low-paying public-service jobs. Even in the for-profit sector, lawyers in lower-paid, lower-stress practices are happier than those pulling down a healthy six figures while working more than 2,000 hours per year. In the law, too, job satisfaction and quality of life are the answers.

We know that money isn’t always the best motivator, and in many instances, it’s flatly counterproductive. The best formula appears to be paying employees a salary that keeps the bills paid; employees won’t be happy or productive if they cannot pay their rent or count on their next meal or if they feel housebound. But once those bases are covered, more money doesn’t always lead to higher satisfaction. Especially if they have high-pressure jobs with long hours, employees are looking for enough time to spend what they earn.

But if money isn’t all good, the statistics show that stress isn’t all bad. In mid-June, London’s Daily Mail surveyed 3,000 workers, half of whom said they are most effective while under stress. The study determined that the proper balance of three factors—stimulation, stress, and time—led to the highest job satisfaction and productivity. The balance created by “a stimulating task, a demanding challenging role, and a realistic time scale” is the key to work satisfaction.

It looks like Aristotle got it right almost 2,500 years ago when he advocated for “moderation in all things.” A moderate degree of challenge and stress, plenty of time to do the job without being bored, and enough money not to worry about the bill collector is the sweet spot to look for—at least until the next generation changes the meaning of job satisfaction again.

Mark I. Schickman is a partner with Freeland Cooper & Foreman LLP in San Francisco, California. He may be contacted at

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