We focus on the monetary aspects of work to such an extent it can distort our career choices. I have worked with countless individuals in the Banking and Finance Industry on whopping six figure salaries who are bored out of their brains and wanting to do something more meaningful, but feel trapped, because most charity work jobs don’t come with a 300K salary attached. In fact Amelia Wise and Lynne Millward in a recent study in the UK of 30 something career changers found that 70 per cent had a “substantial” drop in salary when moving to a new position. Apparently these 30 somethings thought it was worth it, to do what they really wanted to do. They had typically worked for about 15 years before realising they were in the money trap.
We are often attracted to jobs because of the money, but it is not usually the money that drives us to leave. This is normally due to other factors like status, self-development, surroundings, relationships with the boss and other workers. So how come we don’t take these into consideration when we make our choices? Well for a start, it is difficult to gauge what it will be like working with new colleagues in new surroundings and it is hard to know whether we’ll get the recognition and skill development that is promised. I have another theory why money and career choice seem to go together – Christmas.
If you type “Career Change” into Google trends you get graphs of the number of times this phrase was searched over the last three years. The graphs show that the peak time of year for this search is straight after Christmas. So we all wake up with a career hangover on New Year’s Day and question why we are still with the same employer. Then we get the credit card bill for Christmas and realise we need a better-paid job where we are valued.
The trouble is, no matter how much you get paid, it is not enough and does not compensate for the boredom, the horrid surroundings and the toxic colleagues. We con ourselves into thinking that more money will make us happier bunnies, but study after study shows that money has a minimal effect on our happiness. For instance, Ed Diener and Shiegehiro Oishi writing in Culture and subjective well-being, a book edited by Diener and Eunkook Shah published by MIT press in 2000, surveyed life satisfaction across very rich and very poor nations. It turns out that the poorest nations rated themselves about 11 per cent less satisfied with life than the richest nations. So you can go from Bulgaria to Denmark and you will only achieve an 11 per cent increase in happiness (and be a lot colder into the bargain!).
Peter Warr an Organisational Psychologist wrote an excellent book that puts money in its place. (Work, Unemployment and Mental Health. Published by Clarendon Press). He uses the analogy of vitamins to describe the importance of different aspects of work. We need minimum levels of all vitamins, however some like vitamins A and D can be harmful in large doses, whereas others like Vitamins C and E are beneficial for health in small doses, but large doses do not make you super super healthy – there are no additional benefits to be had. Warr argues (and there is lots of support for his model) that money is like vitamin C. Small amounts are necessary for good mental health, but above a certain point it provides no increase in well-being.
In other words, chasing money by changing jobs will not do much for your happiness and might delay you thinking about what you really want to do with your life.
Jim Bright is Professor of Career Education and Development at ACU and a Partner at Bright and Associates, a Career Management Consultancy.