Workers who change jobs may feel an initial burst of job satisfaction, but that satisfaction can drop precipitously within a year, according to a study in the September issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology (Vol. 90, No. 5, pages 882-892). Researcher Wendy Boswell, PhD, of Texas A&M University, and her colleagues have termed their finding the "honeymoon hangover" effect.
"The simple model is that job satisfaction predicts turnover-if you're unhappy at your job, you'll leave," says Boswell. "But there's a lot of practical and anecdotal evidence that it's more complex than that."
To explore that complexity, she and her colleagues spent five years following the careers of more than 500 high-level managers selected at random from the database of an executive search firm. The researchers surveyed the employees once a year, asking them about any voluntary job changes they'd made and about how satisfied they felt at their current job.
The researchers found that, in addition to the expected dip in satisfaction preceding a voluntary job change, many respondents also experienced a temporary high and then another dip in satisfaction after beginning their new jobs.
"There's a honeymoon period at the beginning of any job," says Boswell. "People are always treated well during recruitment. But then you get back to work, and the grass maybe isn't as green there as you thought it would be."
There may also be a dispositional explanation, Boswell says. People tend to hover around certain set points in their job satisfaction. The excitement of a new job might have temporarily pushed the workers above their set point, but they generally settled back down to it eventually.
Boswell and her colleagues are now beginning a follow-up study to try to pinpoint the causes of the honeymoon hangover. This time, they're surveying workers every three months rather than every year, to determine when the "hangover" begins. They're also including a wider range of jobholders to see if their findings apply to lower-level employees.
In the meantime, employers who want to retain good employees can learn from these findings, Boswell says. First, she suggests, they should try to give prospective employees realistic job previews so the employees aren't disappointed later. Also, she suggests, companies should put as much effort into retaining employees as they do into recruiting them.
"A lot of companies focus their effort on recruitment, but then ignore their current employees," she notes. "If they could keep that honeymoon high, wouldn't that be ideal?"