People’s happiness at work usually dips mid career – now researchers think they know why

If you’re in or not far from your thirties, you’re part of the age group that previous research shows is most likely to experience lower workplace wellbeing. A new study suggests the reasons for this midlife dip: a double whammy of more demands on time and less support from co-workers.

Dr Hannes Zacher‘s team surveyed nearly 800 mostly male workers in various roles in the Australian construction industry. Participants reported wellbeing in terms of job satisfaction and emotional exhaustion. Consistent with previous research, wellbeing was correlated with age, with job satisfaction dropping in the late twenties and recovering in the early forties, and emotional exhaustion showing the reverse pattern.

Why does this happen? Further analysis showed that participants’ reports of support from their co-workers underwent the same mid-life dip as job satisfaction, and the experience of time pressure at work displayed the same mid-life hump as emotional exhaustion.

Support from co-workers probably dips in midlife as peers compete for scarce resources (promotion bottlenecks are often encountered during this career stage). Also, whereas younger counterparts are often hungry to forge new social networks, and older workers seek identity-affirming work experiences in their remaining tenure, midlifers find it demanding enough just to maintain existing social networks. Meanwhile, time pressure likely intensifies mid-career as colleagues try to leverage one’s knowledge and experience.

The influence of support and time pressure entirely explained the age effect in the data. The researchers also looked at work-home conflict, but while this correlated with wellbeing, it turned out not to track age as the other variables did. The authors speculate that the male sample may have less caregiving/familial responsibilities, or that the timing of the peak of these responsibilities may not map reliably onto midlife.

The main findings held, regardless of participants’ managerial status, gender, education, and type of work (white/blue collar). The average impact that midlife has on wellbeing isn’t large, but it is real, and may be exarcerbated by other interacting variables. Now we understand that the problems are due to age-related differences, rather than age per se, we discover ways to combat the midlife wellbeing dip. These could include training in time management skills, fairer delegation, and methods for reducing competition between mid-level peers, so they can reap the benefits of strong social support networks.

  ResearchBlogging.orgZacher, H., Jimmieson, N., & Bordia, P. (2014). Time Pressure and Coworker Support Mediate the Curvilinear Relationship Between Age and Occupational Well-Being. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0036995

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

One thought on “People’s happiness at work usually dips mid career – now researchers think they know why”

  1. you came as if called. I was just looking over the weekend for exactly these types of tools to help me and some of my students with exactly this issue. I will definitely pass the info on ( with a link to your Blog of course – lol ) for them to use.

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