Top Reasons Why Americans Stay At Their Jobs (And What It Means For The Presidential Campaign)

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What’s the No. 1 reason people continue working for their employer? Is it the pay? The benefits? A lack of better options? Those are obvious answers, especially given today’s unemployment numbers and sluggish economy. But they’re not  the correct ones. The top reasons Americans give for not leaving their current job are  “I enjoy the work I do” and it “fits well with the other areas of  my life.” That’s according to a new survey commissioned by the American Psychological Association, which contains a number of revealing insights into employee motivation that ought to be of interest to corporate managers and governmental policy makers.The APA’s “Workforce Retention Survey” was conducted by Harris Interactive in early August. Some 1,240 full- and part-time workers, age 18 or older, were asked to evaluate nine common reasons for staying with a current employer. Here’s how their answers ranked, as measured by the percentage of participants who said they “agreed” or “strongly agreed” with a statement:

  • I enjoy the work I do (67%)
  • My job fits well with the other areas of my life (67%)
  • The benefits (60%)
  • The pay (59%)
  •  I feel connected to the organization (56%)
  • My co-workers (51%)
  • My job gives me the opportunity to make a difference (51%)
  • My manager (40%)
  • There aren’t any other job opportunities for me (39%)

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Surveys can only tell you so much, of course. But as much as anything, these top-line results suggest that despite all the media coverage about the U.S. economy, most employed Americans feel confident enough about their work situation to value the fulfillment they get from their job as much as—and sometimes more than— the financial rewards they receive or their prospects for alternative employment. That might be of particular interest to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, given its official’s insistence that what their candidate really wants to talk about is the economy. Voters, especially unemployed voters, certainly worry about job creation and GDP growth, but perhaps not the extent that the Republicans seem to believe.

Mostly, people care about being happy and enjoying their lives, including their work lives. That’s true for experienced workers—those 55 and older—80% of whom rank enjoying their work highest among reasons given (vs. 58% of those 18 to 34). And it’s true for female workers, too. Indeed, the APA survey opens a window into Gov. Romney’s difficulties connecting to women voters, in that female respondents were consistently more likely than men to cite non-financial factors as major reasons for staying on the job. For example, 72% of women cited the work-life fit, vs. 62% of men. Likewise, 59% of women cited a connection to the organization for which they worked, vs. 53% of men.

Men and women, in general, consistently weighed their reasons for sticking around differently, not least when it comes to the other humans. Some 55% of women, for instance, cited their co-workers as a major reason for not taking another job, vs. 48% of men. And nearly half (46%) of all women say their boss is a big reason why they don’t quit, vs. slightly more than the one in three (34%) men who agree with that sentiment.

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Of particular interest to HR types and the Obama campaign is the connection between reasons for not having left a job and the intent to stay. (Employees’ reported intent to stay and reported intent to leave have consistently proven to be strongly correlated to what they actually end up doing.) As you might expect, given the survey’s top-line result, work-life balance and enjoyment have the strongest correlation to tenure expectations. That is, the biggest drivers of employees planning to stay in their jobs the longest were the extent to which they enjoy their work and the degree to which their jobs fits with the rest of their live. But the third-strongest correlation was neither pay nor benefits, but rather connection to the organization. (Also of note: Both the ability to make a difference and an attachment to co-workers figured more heavily in tenure predictions than pay.)

This should be interesting to HR types, and others who worry about employee retention, because it’s clear that one way to keep your best people from jumping overboard is to make them feel more connected to the ship. Compensation is obviously important, but not as much as economists would tell you. Likewise, the Obama campaign might want to expend less energy pounding the drumbeat of diminished middle class buying power (as real as it is). Few people, of course, will tell pollsters that they wouldn’t want more money to spend. But when you ask folks about their economic motivations and concerns from a different angle—which this survey in many ways does—it’s clear that Americans place a very high value on something you don’t hear a lot about in campaign ads: job satisfaction and meaning. No wonder so many of us like working with each other.