The people you work with predict whether you’re happy at work

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What most affects the quality of life for academics? I’ll put this question another way: at the end of the workday, when we go home, what is it that makes our day go well? What allows us to be happy and satisfied on a daily basis at work? How does this translate into long-term job happiness?

In my opinion, the best predictor is how wonderful the people are in our departments and our own labs.

What are some other variables that are not as important? In my opinion, that includes funding levels, the type of institution, campus politics, commuting, and many other kinds of stuff.

I’ve talked with a lot of professors who love their jobs and are happy about work in general. And I also have known people who are somewhere between less-than-fully-satisfied to downright miserable. What separates these two groups, I think, is whether or not they have great colleagues. People who value their opinion, who they trust, who are kind hearted, unselfish, and are concerned about maintaining a supportive community.

Here’s a corollary: long-term job satisfaction might not be so much controlled by whether we work in a research institution, or a small liberal arts college, or a regional public university: it’s about the people we work with on a daily basis. And supportive colleagues are found — or are not found — all over the place regardless of institution types.

Discussions about academic life often revolve around advising people how to find routes for professional success, happiness and a balanced life. But we don’t talk much about how to identify and create a positive work environment, and there seems to be more of an emphasis on getting competitive edge over one’s colleagues. This approach seems to be a recipe for professional discontent.

I’m on my way home after spending a couple weeks at a field station with a group of the most supportive and warm people, in an environment that’s focused on the development of students working with us. Then, when the academic year starts back up, I’ll be joining folks that are just as wonderful, genuinely like one another, and are focused on what we can do to help one another and our students. I haven’t worked in a truly toxic place in the past, but I’ve been around the block enough to realize that I’ve been accepted into an uncommonly special community of scholars. I’m not deriving my main satisfaction from life from my specific place of work, but interactions with these folks are not a small part of my day-to-day experiences. Being able to work in a positive community that shares my priorities is valuable. I have to say that this seems to be a relative rarity, and I’ve seen some people become unhappy in what they thought was a dream job, because of the people who worked there.

When you’re thinking about what kind of academic job will meet your interests in the long term, I just wanted to introduce the notion that maybe it’s not so much controlled by your teaching load, or if it’s near a particular ocean, or what the national ranking is. A common regret that people experience near the end of of their life is that they should have worked less and spent more time with family. I imagine that, near the end of their careers, a lot of people wish they had worried less about productivity and impressing others, and spend more time providing opportunity for and supporting others.

6 thoughts on “The people you work with predict whether you’re happy at work

  1. I’ve been fortunate to have great relationships with my colleagues over the course of my academic career. For me, the biggest impact on my happiness at work was security of employment. When I had temporary gigs (e.g. adjunct, visiting professor), the stress of potentially being unemployed after <12 months was not fun. For five years after I completed my PhD, I never had longer than a 12 month contract regardless of whether I was in my postdoc research position or picking up some teaching work. I’m a fairly strong advocate for my institution to move away from so many adjunct hires and hire more 3 year renewable lecturer gigs (of course, I’d love to see more TT lines too, but that’s a harder lift).

  2. I bet there is an organizational psychology study to back this up, but I won’t bother looking for a reference because I think you are right. So when people interview, they should ask about how supportive the work environment is. And we should always do what we can to build a positive work environment.

  3. I could easily believe that colleagues are an underrated factor in quality of life, but I definitely don’t believe it’s the most important factor. I often go days without interacting with my departmental colleagues at all, but if you increased my teaching load by one lecture I would be extremely stressed and unhappy (and very unsatisfied, because I wouldn’t be able to do my job to my standards). And commute length and modality are known to be quite important in happiness and stress (e.g., https://www.vox.com/2015/5/20/8629881/commuting-health-happiness ).

    Location is also important. I’ve known people to give up tenure-track jobs because the region fit them so poorly (e.g., an urban West Coaster living in the rural South). This is also about recreational opportunities – trust me, if hiking and mountaineering are your passions, you are not going to be happy in the Midwest. And living in a high-cost area can cause substantial stress (I interviewed at a university in San Francisco my first year on the market, and now count myself lucky I didn’t get the offer).

  4. christophernanderson’s point is really important as well. I once had a postdoc in an essentially perfect location, and while I couldn’t have had a better first two years there, the next two years (one self funded on grants) started getting miserable because of lack of job security. Some people like moving all over, but most of us – even we peripatetic academics – find there comes a point in our life when we’d very much like to settle down with long-term plans for our location and paycheck.

  5. I absolutely agree! I just left my TT position in a location my husband and I both wanted to live due to a pretty toxic work environment. Granted, there were a couple awesome people but they’re retiring early this year (also due to toxic work environment) and my experience is that one really rotten apple can ruin the whole bunch. In my search for a more ideal job over the past three years, I have been much more focused on “fit” with potential colleagues. After one campus interview, I just had a really bad feeling about the dept. As it turns out, my instinct was right. I’m glad I kept looking because I found (what I hope to be) a very supportive Dept. and we’re moving this summer. The bottom line from my experience: pay attention to your gut instinct on the interviews and don’t settle for something that looks good on paper but doesn’t feel right!

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