In this ABC Interview with Richard Aedy, our CEO, Rhonda Brighton-Hall answers the question ‘How satisfied are Australians at work?’

Transcription of the interview:


What makes a difference when it comes to how you feel about work?

To find out the consultancy mwah. in partnership with Curtin University had drawn from the data from the latest House Hold Income and Labour Dynamics Australia Survey also known as HILDA.

To tell us more about the report ‘Happy Workers – How Satisfied are Australians at Work?’ I’m joined by Rhonda Brighton-Hall from Making Work Absolutely Human.

What were you hoping to achieve?


The reason we wanted to do it is the narrative and the conversations about work at the moment are almost exclusively economic and what we want to do is have a different conversation.

I think there needs to be a conversation that isn’t economic or legal which are the two big debates at work.

It actually is about the humanity at work and work isn’t ‘instead of leisure I have to go to work’ it’s actually part of your life and it’s a really important part of your life.

What we wanted to talk about was how we are doing work, how we might do work and the really the only way to get to a different conversation is to look at a different set of facts.


If you look at it, there are lots of different studies on the subject of work.


Yes, often they are quite limited whereas this one is representative of the whole country, it goes across so many industries and regional areas.

You start to see patterns and what actually works for work.

I think sometimes we are looking for an answer or something from a company or brand and I think the conversation about work needs to be lifted away from the PR machine of brands which have a great purpose in doing what they need to do.

To talk about work and where it’s going, we need to talk differently about work.


What are some of the stand out findings?


I think the stand out findings for me were the highest correlation bar none was the work you do.

We intuitively know that the work you do is important but when you can actually see it starting at you on a page and you strip out hours, how much money you earn, everything else, that one stands alone as the thing that really matters.

The work you do and whether you have some autonomy on how you do it and who you get to do it with.


So that is related to how happy you are at work or how satisfied Australians are at work and they are two different things aren’t they?


They are but we have used them in a bit of a stranger way when you ask someone, are you happy with this or are you satisfied with this?

Their scores on whether they are happy or not, we had long conversations on ‘What is happiness?’ but the reality is if someone asks, ‘Are you satisfied with this?’ and they yes, out of a score from 1 – 10 which is how it is scored that is a great place to start.


Let’s go through some of the other finding’s, Age. What does that tell you?


We find the highest levels of happiness and engagement are with the over 70’s.

Which means the people where we go ‘Are they still really excited about work?’, ‘Are they still really committed?’, ‘Do they still have energy?’ are the most engaged, the most happy at work.

I think that’s a great sign because at the moment that generation working over 70 is people who are usually doing things they love and so they are doing work they love and it’s part of their purpose in life. But increasingly like my generation we will probably work over 70 because it’s an economic responsibility for the country.


That’s interesting. At the moment 70’s who are working we can say they are working because they want to be working.


We can’t always assume that because we’re speculating that when we look at their job description and the autonomy, they have over it, they are feeling pretty good about the work they are doing. And then when we did the deep dive into the report and I think that’s one of the things that makes it very readable is that we did case studies.

The case studies are of people who are working over 70 and they were saying things like ‘I can’t imagine not working and there’s so much more to be done, there are things I must do’ It’s part of their identity.


What about the younger generations?


The next generation, whether you call them the I Generation or Generation Z, that group is actually happier than the others as well.

People are coming into the workforce quite optimistic and happy to be at work.

It’s the generation’s in the middle – The Y, X and Baby Boomers that are less happy.


That is very disconcerting because I am about the oldest Gen X that you can be.

What that tells you is that you have a U-shaped curve .

At either end happy ‘I am happy because work hasn’t really begun because I don’t know what I am doing yet’ and the other end ‘I am finished but I am still enjoying myself’.

In the middle, it does become a big part of who you are people are not so happy.


When you see what’s correlating in there and it’s about, we are starting to work much longer hours.

As your hours start to go over 38 – 40 happiness starts to fall away really quickly.

If you’ve got a big career or a big job and you are serious about it then you must work these excessively long hours.

Even though we know it’s not good for your wellbeing or good for your productivity that’s what people are doing and it’s making them quite unhappy.

There’s a tight link between happiness and wellness.


What I found interesting is how complicated it is.

One of the things that you’ve also found is that if you are self-employed you can be quite happy.

I guess because of the autonomy you have but often if you are self-employed you are working more than 38 – 40 hours.


Yes, you are but what we also found is if you get out of the metro’s and into regional areas and often in smaller businesses as the big businesses are usually in the metro areas then small businesses.

When you get into regional areas and the correlation with small businesses and you’re not working excessively long hours because this report goes over 60 hours.

At 60 hours you are really starting to trade off life.


I am interested in the regional area because I think you found that people are happiest to be at work in Tasmania.


Tasmania was the highest, closely followed by the Northern Territory and the ACT and NSW came in fourth.

When you look at what’s in NSW and why we aren’t up there with Tasmania you start to see the impact of big businesses, big hours and you see the impact of job security come into the equation.

So, there must be something with working in Tassie and working in a small business, you are a bit more remote, you probably have a smaller commute so your hours at work feel less.

You start to be a bit more autonomous about how you can arrange that work too.


Tasmania has historically got a relatively high unemployment rate and its more than metropolitan areas then NSW or Victoria. So, I wonder if people who have got a job are just happy, they’ve got one.


We did talk about that because the other factor that comes in is with people who have a higher education aren’t as happy as people who have lower education. Is that because people with higher education or in a metro area are expecting more because they have a greater education and they live in Sydney where everybody has a job therefore I expect my job to be great and I expect to have a great job whereas in Tasmania they might just be happy to have a job but when you look at the description for their job they are actually high on everything. High on ‘I like the job I’m doing’, ‘I like the work I’m doing’, ‘I like my colleagues’ and have some job autonomy so it’s not just job security it’s all the other things that go with it.


What about gender?


Women are happier but there’s not a huge difference between the two and that again could just be ‘are women just happy to be employed?’. We did have that conversation.


Women are more likely to be working flexibly and flexibility and agency are things that make you more satisfied.


There is a very high correlation with working 1 day from home and being happier than people who don’t.

Just working one day a week from home gives you a real kick in happiness because you get one day of the week to work in your own environment.


So that flexibility is really important?


That is important but it’s also the autonomy. ‘Can I do my work?’, ‘Do I have to do it?’.

I think when you get into a really big machine and what is happening in the really big corporations is you almost switch off your autonomy as a grown-up.

At home you are making decisions, solving conflicts and dealing with all sorts of things that are coming your way in a responsible grown-up way.

You then get to work and you get into the mode of ‘you need to tell me what to do’, ‘give me instructions, reassurance, affirmation’, all the things in day to day life that we don’t need.


I am really intrigued by that because I have a lot of autonomy in my job and I like it but I am really knackered and there’s always too much all the time.

The work-life balance can spill out to evenings and weekends.


I think you have some autonomy of what you are doing and you love what you are doing so you might choose to work extra because you know there are important things to be done.

The actual job that you are in versus ‘I don’t want to work this weekend, I want to be on a camping trip but my boss is texting and phoning me so I must answer’, that’s quite different

It’s exhausting whereas the first one is you feel really accomplished and happy that you nailed that really important piece of work.


What can we say about the industry?

Does industry matter?


Yes, it does.

What we found is agriculture was the highest and that’s interesting.

It has something to do with you can work really hard and see the results in your labour, it’s almost in front of you so it’s quite visceral and physical.

When you go across to areas like community work, caring work, anything that works with other people, medical was also reasonably high, you are caring for others, you are doing work which has a purpose.

One of the case studies we did was a woman who was trained as a super marketer but actually went across to a part-time job in childcare and changed her career completely.

She loves her work but probably gets paid so much less than what she would have got if she stayed as a marketer in a corporate job.


What about private or public?

Does that matter?


It does matter, we’ve got public, private and we’ve also gone across from education into academia.

You’ll find in public you get higher scores than private but then when you look at businesses and small businesses, the micro businesses are even happier.

Not for profits are doing well and I think it relates to the purpose.

I think if you have a bit of purpose in the work you are doing then you would probably enjoy it.

We had a few good conversations with some not for profits about the happiness in their workplace.

I think when we turn up to a conference and ask, ‘how do you make happy workers?’ and ‘how do you get a good workplace?’.

We say let’s grab a global giant tech company and put them on stage and they can tell us how it’s done but what this would say is you’re probably better going outside Hobart to a hairdresser with 12 people and asking them how they get their workforce really happy?

They are probably happier than a big tech company working in Sydney.


Employers listening now, what’s the message?


The message is that you must look at the relationships so the actual colleagues do they get on?

Putting people in leadership roles or advisory roles and getting them to build great relationships so they can get a great team.

The work needs to be put together, so people can have real worth.

We’ve got a great example where a person who actually cans tomato’s and his purpose is he believes these are the best tomatoes and if you buy this brand it’s really fantastic.

You think your purpose needs to be life-changing or on world peace but actually, he thought his job was meaningful because…

So, if he’s giving us great vegetables then it’s a great purpose.

If you are relating your business to something someone is genuinely doing and it’s meaningful then you can really lift the whole workforce.


So, this is one of those things where’s it’s longitudinal. What are you going to do now?


We have a couple of other ideas that we would like to look at but equally what we would like to do is the same happiness report every year and see how we are tracking.


It will be interesting to see what changes and what stays the same.


I’ll love to see and be a part of seeing whether we will have a different narrative or a different conversation about work.

Because at the moment every time I go somewhere I hear ‘what work might look like in the future’ and someone throws up a video of a robot and goes ‘robots are going to take our jobs’ and then you leave feeling overwhelmed.

Or they throw up a video of a robot and say ‘it’s going to be so shiny and exciting, we can’t wait’ but either of those futures are not actually relating to what really matters to anyone who is working.

If we start to talk about what really matters at work and how can we make that better than we are probably in better shape.