Employee satisfaction surveys: putting employee well-being on the organisational development agenda

Back in 2012, the Office for National Statistics published the results of its first ‘happiness survey’. The—perhaps unsurprising—result: people who are married, have jobs, and own their own homes are the most likely to be satisfied with their lives. Living in an unemployment ‘black spot’, being middle-aged, and being unhealthy, all correlated with being unhappy.

Inevitably, the temptation is to look at such surveys, and say: ‘Why bother?’ And for hard-nosed businesspeople, the temptation will be to be even more dismissive of carrying out such surveys within the workplace.

But that could be a mistake. For while happiness is a slippery subject—difficult to define, and difficult to measure—no manager wants a workforce characterised by unhappiness.

Hence the rise of employee satisfaction surveys.

Key indicators

Employee satisfaction surveys—especially if carried out regularly, thus providing an ongoing index of employee satisfaction—handily provide actionable data on three key organisational characteristics.

First, employee well-being. Responsible employers recognise the link between employee well-being and productivity. If employees in a department consistently score low levels on employee satisfaction measures, it could point to endemic problems in that department. Poor management practices, for instance, or a culture of low social support or bullying.

Secondly, employee satisfaction surveys provide an index of how well things are going within the organisational context and reflect employee well-being. The ability of an organisation to track satisfaction over time is a very useful litmus test of the workplace ‘climate’ and the success or otherwise of organisational policies and practices.

And thirdly, employee satisfaction surveys provide valuable pointers to organisational development requirements. In particular, they highlight the degree of support that individuals feel that they are receiving in achieving their career and work aspirations, and the need for such help in areas such as training and development, and career support.

Levers to pull

A tougher question is what to do about the outcome of employee satisfaction surveys in the aggregate.

Namely, what levers can management pull in order to increase employee satisfaction and sense of well-being? Only rarely, if ever, is the answer ‘higher pay’.

Research, for instance, has indicated that among New Zealand office goers, their work environment, company culture, and workplace morale were the most important factors determining employee satisfaction and sense of well-being, while salary was one of the least significant factors.

Satisfaction generators

Instead, it turned out that factors such as how supported they felt in their work, how positive the organisational climate was, and the support network and policies and practices experienced within the organisation were more important than purely financial considerations.

Likewise, research suggests that employers can do much to positively influence employee satisfaction levels through such things as ensuring a good person organisation fit and person job fit, good training and development provision, career management, performance management, a healthy and safe work environment, and good communication.

Finally, research also suggests that organisational climate, and the philosophy and ethos of the organisation have an impact on employee satisfaction. Likewise, it is important for individuals to have goals that are synchronised with their personal values, and to be able to make progress toward those goals.

Policy and practice

None of this is exactly rocket science. Nevertheless, the increase in the number of organisations conducting regular employee satisfaction surveys suggests that managements find them to be a useful tool.

Employees are—literally—the life blood of an organisation, and good management policy and practices are essential to supporting employees and promoting their sense of well-being. Employee satisfaction surveys map those levels of well-being, and point to where policy and practice may need reinforcing.

Sceptics may scoff, but the real issue is simply stated. If an organisation doesn’t value having happy and satisfied employees, then let it try having unhappy and dissatisfied employees.

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