Three reasons why you’re unhappy in the workplace cover image

Three reasons why you’re unhappy in the workplace

Dorian Minors • December 8, 2015

This is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and turn it into wisdom. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. As such, these articles live here in archive form, until they're updated.

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.

. Meaning doesn't mean 'enlightenment'. Just the sense that what you're doing has some purpose.


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:

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).

. So, if you're working on a production line, perhaps the JCM is going to be hard to implement. But in today's world, even that becomes a complex task. Soon we'll all be managers, be it of people, or robots. I just look forward to the days I can work from the comfort of my bed.

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:

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.

Turning scholarship into wisdom we can use at The Armchair Collective.

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Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.