Job satisfaction: theories and definitions

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Juliet Hassard, Kevin Teoh, and Tom Cox, Birkbeck University of London, United Kingdom.

Job satisfaction

Job satisfaction is one of the most researched variables in the area of workplace psychology [1], and has been associated with numerous [[Psychosocial issues - the changing world of work]| organisational factors]] ranging from leadership to job design [2]. This article seeks to outline the key definitions relating to job satisfaction, the main theories associated with explaining job satisfaction, as well as the types of and issues surrounding the measurement of job satisfaction. While it is also important to explore what factors precede and are impacted by job satisfaction, this is covered in a separate article.

Definition of job satisfaction

Due the popularity of job satisfaction within the field of occupational and organisational psychology [2], various researchers and practitioners have provided their own definitions of what job satisfaction is. However, the two most common definitions describe job satisfaction as: “the pleasurable emotional state resulting from the appraisal of one’s job as achieving or facilitating the achievement of one’s job values (pg. 1342)” [3]; and “the extent to which people like (satisfaction) or dislike (dissatisfaction) their jobs (pg. 2)“ [2].

In general, most definitions cover the affective feeling an employee has towards their job. This could be the job in general or their attitudes towards specific aspects of it, such as: their colleagues, pay or working conditions [4]. In addition, the extent to which work outcomes meet or exceed expectations may determine the level of job satisfaction [5]. However, job satisfaction is not only about how much an employee enjoys work. Taber and Alliger [6] found that when employees of an American educational institute rated how much they enjoyed individual tasks within their role, their scores were moderately correlated to satisfaction with the work itself, and associated (although weakly) with global job satisfaction. Taber and Alliger [6] also found that other measures (such as, level of concentration required for the job, level of supervision, and task importance) all had no impact on satisfaction. This study demonstrates that the accumulating enjoyment of work tasks added up to overall job satisfaction. However, the low relationship does suggest that other factors, besides enjoyment, contribute to how satisfied employees feel at work.

Theories of job satisfaction

Job satisfaction theories have a strong overlap with theories explaining human motivation. The most common and prominent theories in this area include: Maslow’s needs hierarchy theory [7]; Herzberg’s [8] motivator-hygiene theory; the Job Characteristics Model [9]; and the dispositional approach [10]. These theories are described and discussed below.

Hierarchy of needs

Although commonly known in the human motivation literature, Maslow’s [7] needs hierarchy theory was one of the first theories to examine the important contributors to job satisfaction. The theory suggests that human needs form a five-level hierarchy (Figure 1) consisting of: physiological needs, safety, belongingness/love, esteem, and self-actualisation. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs postulates that there are essential needs that need to be met first (such as, physiological needs and safety), before more complex needs can be met (such as, belonging and esteem).

Figure 1: Maslow’s Five-level hierarchy [11]

Maslow’s needs hierarchy was developed to explain human motivation in general. However, its main tenants are applicable to the work setting, and have been used to explain job satisfaction. Within an organisation, financial compensation and healthcare are some of the benefits which help an employee meet their basic physiological needs. Safety needs can manifest itself through employees feeling physically safe in their work environment, as well as job security and/ or having suitable company structures and policies. When this is satisfied, the employee’s can focus on feeling as though they belong to the workplace. This can come in the form of positive relationships with colleagues and supervisors in the workplace, and whether or not they feel they are a part of their team/ organisation. Once satisfied, the employee will seek to feel as though they are valued and appreciated by their colleagues and their organisation. The final step is where the employee seeks to self-actualise; where they need to grow and develop in order to become everything they are capable of becoming. Although it could be seen as separate, the progressions from one step to the next all contribute to the process of self-actualisation. Therefore, organisations looking to improve employee job satisfaction should attempt to meet the basic needs of employees before progressing to address higher-order needs. However, more recently this approach is becoming less popular as it fails to consider the cognitive process of the employee and, in general, lacks empirical supporting evidence [2]. In addition, others [12] have found fault with the final stage of self-actualisation. The lack of a clear definition and conceptual understanding of self-actualisation, paired with a difficulty of measuring it, makes it difficult to measure what the final goal is or when it has been achieved.

Motivator-Hygiene Theory

Herzberg’s [8] motivator-hygiene theory suggests that job satisfaction and dissatisfaction are not two opposite ends of the same continuum, but instead are two separate and, at times, even unrelated concepts. ‘Motivating’ factors like pay and benefits, recognition and achievement need to be met in order for an employee to be satisfied with work. On the other hand, ‘hygiene’ factors (such as, working conditions, company policies and structure, job security, interaction with colleagues and quality of management) are associated with job dissatisfaction.

Figure 2: Graphical Representation of Herzberg’s Description of Satisfiers and Dissatisfiers [13]

Because both the hygiene and motivational factors are viewed as independent, it is possible that employees are neither satisfied nor dissatisfied. This theory postulates that when hygiene factors are low the employee is dissatisfied, but when these factors are high it means the employee is not dissatisfied (or neutral), but not necessarily satisfied. Whether or not an employee is satisfied is dependent on the motivator factors. Moreover, it is thought that when motivators are met the employee is thought to be satisfied. This separation may aid in accounting for the complexity of an employee’s feelings, as they might feel both satisfied and dissatisfied at the same time; or neither satisfied nor dissatisfied.

Whilst the Motivator-Hygiene theory was crucial in first distinguishing job satisfaction from dissatisfaction, the theory itself has received little empirical support. Herzberg’s original study [13] has been criticised for having been conducted with a weak methodology [12] [14]. As a result, subsequent attempts to test this theory have obtained mixed results with some researchers supporting it [15] [16] and others not [17] [18].

Job Characteristics Model

The Job Characteristics Model (JCM)[9] explains that job satisfaction occurs when the work environment encourages intrinsically motivating characteristics. Five key job characteristics: skill variety, task identity, task significance, autonomy and feedback, influence three psychological states (Figure 3). Subsequently, the three psychosocial states then lead to a number of potential outcomes, including: job satisfaction. Therefore from an organisations’ point of view, it is thought that by improving the five core job dimensions this will subsequently lead to a better work environment and increased job satisfaction.

Figure 3: Job Characteristics Model [9]

Unlike the Maslow or Herzberg’s theories, the JCM has received more empirical support. However, it has also drawn criticism as many studies utilising this model investigate the direct impact core job dimensions have on personal and work outcomes, completely disregarding the critical psychological states [19]. Despite this, the JCM and its impact on job satisfaction has been the subject of three reviews [20] [21] [22], which further lend support to the model. Further to this, Behson and colleagues’ [23] meta-analysis of 13 studies specifically focused on the role of critical psychological states, and found these psychological states to play a crucial practical and theoretical role within the JCM.

Dispositional approach

This dispositional approach suggests that job satisfaction is closely related to personality. It postulates that an individual has a strong predisposition towards a certain level of satisfaction, and that these remain fairly constant and stable across time [24]. The evidence for this approach can be divided into indirect studies and direct studies. Judge and colleagues [10] [25] have reviewed these areas in greater detail.

The indirect evidence comes from studies that do not explicitly measure personality. Data from the National Longitudinal Studies in the United States found that measures of job satisfaction tend to remain fairly stable over 2, 3 and 5 year periods [26]. This even includes significant employment changes, such as: changes in employer or occupation. Interestingly, a twin based study [27] examined 34 twins whom had been raised independently of one another. This study found genetic factors accounted for 30% of job satisfaction levels when assessed in later life.

The indirect studies, however, are vulnerable to a number of important criticisms, namely that other unaccounted factors might be contributing to job satisfaction levels [28]. This highlights the respective importance of studies directly assessing the role of personality. Most prominently, there is research evidence that self-esteem, self-efficacy, emotional stability and locus of control comprise a broad personality construct, which contribute to how an individual sees themselves [24]. A review of 169 correlations between each of four affective constructs (i.e., self-esteem, self-efficacy, emotional stability and locus of control) and job satisfaction, found that as self-reported levels of self-esteem, self-efficacy, emotion stability and locus of control increased so did job satisfaction [29]. Similarly, investigations into the link between the five factor model of personality and job satisfaction revealed neuroticism, conscientiousness and extraversion to have a moderate relationships with job satisfaction [30].

Summary of theories

Despite its past popularity, it is unfortunate that there is little empirical support for the hierarchy of needs and motivator-hygiene approaches [12] [14]. On the other hand, the dispositional approach and JCM continues to grow in empirical support [29]. However, it is difficult to deny that the motivating factors influence the surrounding environment and has an impact on how satisfied employees are in their work, and that personality or the JCM do not fully explain job satisfaction. Consequently, Furnham and colleagues [31] integrated Herzberg’s motivator-hygiene approach alongside personality to better understand the combined impact on job satisfaction. Findings revealed that demographic variables and scores on the five commonly used personality traits (including, openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) together accounted for a significant portion of job satisfaction.

Measurement of job satisfaction

Type of measurement

The measurement of job satisfaction can be classified into three different methods [32]: single question, global measurement, and facet measurement.

The single question asks only one question as an indication of how satisfied an employee is at work. This is commonly found in large surveys, such as: the US National Longitudinal Survey. The Survey asks ‘How do you feel about the job you have now?’, and requires respondents to answer on a scale (like it very much, like it fairly well, dislike it somewhat, dislike it very much) [32]. Despite the assumption that having more questions can obtain more objective and accurate results as well as being less prone to error, research has shown that asking a single question, either on overall job satisfaction or on individual facets of job satisfaction can be equally as effective [33]. Proponents of this approach believe that employees generally know how happy they are, and, therefore, there is little point in asking them multiple questions about the same thing.

The global measurement seeks to obtain a single score representing the overall job satisfaction an employee has [32]. Several questions or statements are provided relating to different aspects of the job (such as, pay, work activities, working conditions and career prospects), but combines them to provide an overall score. On the other hand, facet measurements have questions or items for these different areas and provides one score to represent each area. Established global measures include the Job Satisfaction Scales [34] and the Overall Job Satisfaction Scale [35]; whilst the Job Description Index (JDI) [36] is one established facet measure.

The availability of diverse job satisfaction measurements means those intending to measure this concept have the option of choosing a particular measure which best fits their purpose. However, the multiple options can make comparisons difficult, while a poor choice of measurement can lead to unreliable or invalid outcomes [37].

Issues with measurements

Despite the availability of questions and measures for assessing job satisfaction, there are a few issues that need to be taken into consideration when selecting a suitable measure and when interpreting the results. The prolific number of measures of job satisfaction has raised issues surrounding the reliability and validity of them. This is further complicated when assessing across different cultures, languages and ages as they can all confound the results obtained.

Reliability and validity

The popularity of job satisfaction has lead to numerous measures being created for this concept. Unfortunately, many of them, including some by academics and practitioners, are simply not sufficiently valid or reliable [38]. This means the measure might not accurately measure job satisfaction, or that it is not able to provide consistent results. Van Saane and colleagues [38] reviewed 29 commonly used job satisfaction measures they found in the academic literature: examining the validity (i.e., does it measure what it is supposed to) and reliability (i.e, how consistent are the results on the measure) of the reviewed measures. The study found that only seven of the measures were found to have adequate validity and reliability. Consequently, those intending to measure job satisfaction have to ensure that the measure being used has been shown to be both reliable and valid.

Cross cultural issues

Organisations and practitioners that work across different national and cultural boundaries have to be aware of the suitability of the chosen measure to a particular workforce [39]. Using a different measure for each workforce makes comparison more difficult [40]. However, the use of the same measure across different countries can be problematic as different workforces interpret it differently.

The use of any scales across national boundaries raises various issues, and users of job satisfaction scales should bear in mind how two particular issues, language and culture, might affect their results [40]. Language has a powerful influence on how individuals perceive their reality, as various languages bring about different labels for concepts and objects [41]. When using a scale in two separate countries which speak the same language (i.e. the United Kingdom and Australia) there are fewer issues than when the measure is presented in a different language. Not only does the similar language imply similar understanding, but the one language used means translation is not required. This avoids having discrepancy between the original and the translated version, which can affect the meaning of the measure; either due to a lack of compatible vocabulary or because of poor translation [40]. However, when a scale of the same language is administered in two different cultures it can lead to respondents with different values understanding the scale differently [42]. Alternatively, how rating scales are interpreted is impacted by culture. Riodan and Vanderberg [43] found a rating of ‘4’ on a 1-7 point scale had different meaning to Koreans and Americans.

Despite these issues there are job satisfaction measures that have been demonstrated to be reliable and valid across different languages and cultures. For example, Ryan and colleagues [44] found similar satisfaction scores when respondents from the US and Australia completed the same measure in English. Across languages, the Nordic Employee Index [45] consistently assesses job satisfaction across the Nordic nations. Similarly, Liu and colleagues [40] examined the German Job Satisfaction Survey filled out by employees in 18 countries, in German, English and Spanish. They found similarities across countries, which have the same language or a similar cultural background.


The relationship between job satisfaction and age has been shown to have either a ‘U’ or positive relationship. In the ‘U’ relationship [46] [47], high satisfaction in early and latter career is separated with a dip in the middle. Using a sample of over 5000 employees in the UK, Clarke and colleagues [46] found that job satisfaction was high amongst those in their teens, and then went down when they were between 20 and 30, increased again in their 40s to the same level as those in their teens, and progressing higher in their 50s and 60s. Alternatively, some have shown a gradual increase in satisfaction as age increased [48] [49].

Both approaches demonstrate higher satisfaction in older age, which could be due to a number of reasons, including that [46] [47]:

  • Older employees might have lowered their expectations over time and learnt to be more satisfied.
  • Unhappy older employees may be more likely to take early retirement and leave the workforce, leaving the more satisfied older employees.
  • Older employees would have had more time to change jobs and end up in a position in which they are happy with.
  • Due to a lack of longitudinal studies, the differences between younger and older employees might be due to a generational difference.


Considering that job satisfaction impacts every employee across the globe it is hardly surprising that it has received a lot of attention in the research literature. However, this has lead to a large number of definitions, theories and measures. At a European level the focus has been less about these traditional theories of job satisfaction [50]. Instead job satisfaction is typically examined as a consequence of workplace stress and the job demand-control model. Despite this, all together they are important in providing not only a better understanding of this concept, but as a resource where job satisfaction can be best understood and measured in different situations. Care also needs to be taken as there are also numerous ill fitting theories and measurements which can harm our understanding of job satisfaction. It is also important to be aware on how job satisfaction impacts on worker health and productivity, which is explored further in the Job satisfaction: evidence for impact on reducing psychosocial risks article.


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Links for further reading

Eurofound – European Foundation for Improving Living and Working Conditions, Job satisfaction and labour market mobility, 2007. Retrieved 2 March 2013, from: [9]

Judge, T. A., Church, A.H., Job satisfaction: research and practice. In C. L. Cooper and E. A. Locke (Eds.). Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Linking Theory with Practice, Blackwell, Oxford, 2000, pp.166–174.