Earlier this month, Bloomberg released the results of a survey designed to find the happiest occupations in the United States. The results were surprising and revealing. Firefighters came out on top, scoring a 9 of 10 on the job satisfaction scale. Pediatricians were not far behind. Tied for fourth were communications professors and guidance counselors.
What lessons can business leaders learn from this survey? At first glance, the occupations respondents rated as happiest might appear to lack commonalities. However, on closer inspection, they share a handful of key qualities.
We all know there is nothing that energizes and engages employees more than a clear mission. It is hard to imagine a profession with a more evident mission than firefighting. Moreover, the mission of saving lives transcends self-interest and connects us to a purpose larger than ourselves. That is why firefighters and other first responders were such potent national symbols in the days after 9/11.
Pediatricians also devote themselves to a larger purpose: the health and wellbeing of the next generation. Guidance counselors nurture young people as well, helping them find meaning, direction, and self-esteem.
We desire purpose and crave connection with one another—and all of these professions feed that need. The camaraderie amongst firefighters is well-known. Pediatricians cultivate a relationship not just with their young patients, but also with their families. What do communications professors have to do with connection? They are empowering young people to be effective communicators, the basis of human connection in the workplace and elsewhere.
Higher pay is not the answer
Interestingly, of the five occupations that were rated as happiest, only pediatricians are at the upper end of the salary scale. Generous compensation can be an important piece of the employee satisfaction puzzle—but it may not be the most significant, especially among younger workers.
Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, believes that business leaders often overestimate the power of the paycheck. Conversely, he says that “happiness is perhaps the most misunderstood driver of performance.” In particular, he contends that success tends to follow happiness and not the other way around.
In a study he conducted at Harvard, he found that strong social support was the most significant predictor of happiness during periods of high stress. Moreover, providing social support to others was even more powerful than receiving it. Achor’s study confirms research showing that social support providers in the workplace—people who cover for others and actively work to have their backs—are ten times more likely to be engaged.
Firefighters experience high stress, but high social support as well. The providing of social support is also baked into the mission of pediatricians and guidance counselors.
What makes for a great place to work?
Fortune’s list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For is based on data provided by the people analytics firm Great Place To Work. In an introduction to the 2019 list, they identify two broad themes amongst this year’s winners: the experience of trust in the workplace, and the ability of all employees to realize their full human potential.
Looking back at the survey of the happiest professions, we can see that trust and a commitment to human potential are defining characteristics in the highest-rated jobs.
At the bottom end of the survey were telemarketers, insurance claims clerks, and mail clerks. A very different set of qualities unites these occupations. The working relationships are primarily transactional, as opposed to being built around trust or purpose. The tasks involved are highly scripted and mechanical, with little room for individual initiative.
Most professions sit somewhere in the middle. There is a purpose to our jobs, but sometimes we lose touch with it. We are engaged some of the time, but not all of the time.
For business leaders, the challenge is clear. How do we design the employee experience at our companies to create the urgency and camaraderie of the firefighter? How do we highlight the way our organizations improve the wellbeing of others and leave a better world behind?
We do not need to install a fireman’s pole in our workplace to capture the spirit that makes firefighting such a rewarding profession. We need to return to the essential questions any meaningful job must answer: What is our mission and how does it make the world a better place? How are we building trust and a strong workplace culture? Are we doing our utmost to develop human potential—both in our employees and in our customers and clients?
When business leaders and their employees can answer these questions with clarity and conviction, they will be on the path to co-creating a great place to work.