Despite the fact that they have fewer close friends in the workplace, less autonomy, more repetitive jobs and feel less supported by colleagues, black workers report higher levels of satisfaction than white workers do, at least among government employees in Tennessee. The study that produced those surprising results, published in the Social Psychology Quarterly, also found that the presence of a relatively high proportion of minorities in a workplace had more impact on the happiness of white workers than it did on black workers. And that effect was not good: the more non-whites there were, the more negative emotions white people felt.
Chief author Melissa Sloan was particularly surprised to find that black workers were happier with their lot than their white colleagues considering the importance of social support in workplace happiness: white respondents in the survey considered more of their office mates to be their close friends than black workers did and many more whites felt supported by their fellow employees than blacks did.
This lack of friendship is not just about office hierarchy. “For a black worker and a white worker in similar jobs, the white worker is more likely to have social connections with coworkers and feel more emotionally supported by them than the black worker,” says Sloan, who’s assistant professor of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences & Sociology at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee and who has been working on this study since 2005.
She gathered her data with surveys filled out by more than 1,300 employees of different government agencies in Tennessee. Public sector employees were chosen because they tend to be a more racially diverse bunch. (Almost 22% of the respondents in this study were black, and 59% were female.) This may go some way toward explaining the striking nature of the findings: two different demographic groups from two communities coming to one workplace will react to the same circumstances differently.
“Black workers in the public sector may compare themselves more favorably to blacks in private sector employment—or to unemployed blacks, given the higher unemployment rate for blacks vs. whites,” says Sloan. White workers who compare themselves to their peers in the private sector may find themselves wanting. Sloan notes, however, that more data would be needed to confirm that, and here, education might be one factor to consider: the study suggests that the more educated the white people were, the less delighted they were to find themselves doing government work in Tennessee.
However, the fact that black workers felt unsupported at work should offset their generally sunnier outlook, because other studies have shown that a lack of support can be detrimental to mental and physical health. “Given the great amount of time people spend in the workplace and the substantial benefits of coworker support reported in other studies, this finding suggests that black workers are missing out on a major source of increased well-being,” says Sloan.
So if black workers feel less support and more isolation on the job, why isn’t the result just a wash for them—why do they wind up on the happy side of the scale, at least compared to their white coworkers? The study found that a lot has to do with how the two races felt about the nature of their work—and how they conduct themselves on the job. Both races were depressed when their work was very routine, had little interaction with others or variety. But only white workers got bummed out when their jobs lacked autonomy or flexibility. That didn’t put much of a dent in the black workers’ mood. Moreover, when black workers felt they helped out other colleagues, it made them happier. White workers called upon to buck up coworkers generally felt brought down themselves by the experience.
“The amount of support white workers provide to others is associated with decreased positive emotional experiences and increased negative emotional experiences. This suggests that white workers do not enjoy providing support to other workers,” the study says. “In contrast, providing support to other workers is actually associated with increased positive emotional experiences for black workers.” Niiiiice, white workers.
The study’s authors suggest that one reason for this may be that because African American employees feel socially isolated, the help they offer others may give them a feeling of community. “By providing support, black workers feel valued and more integrated into the work environment … whereas white workers, who do not experience social isolation in the same way, find providing support to be a burden,” the study notes.
None of this is to say that public workplaces—in Tennessee or elsewhere—are filled with upbeat, collegial black workers and surly, resentful white ones. It does seem to suggest though that jobs, even ones in which workers feel isolated and ignored, can make a big difference in person’s outlook—sometimes in unexpected ways.