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Workers may love to complain about the drudgery of their jobs, but an annual University of Toronto study found a slim majority of Canadians enjoy clocking in most days.

The Canadian Quality of Work and Economic Life Study, done by the University of Toronto with the help of the Angus Reid group, has surveyed 2,500 Canadian workers each year since 2019 to better understand our motivation to work and why anyone would look forward to going to work, besides a paycheque. This year’s study was conducted between late September and late October.

In the case of a 52-year-old law clerk, the answer was straightforward: “Because [without work] I would have no reason to get out of bed,” they told researchers. A 50-year-old construction worker concurred, saying, “It gives me a reason to get up in the morning. My job is constantly changing with many challenges.”

“It’s nice to be valued, to do something valuable and be connected to people,” said a 61-year-old film liaison. Meanwhile, a 59-year-old hotel telephone operator said work gave their life purpose. “We all need to be productive in our lives,” they said. These workers were among the 55 per cent of respondents who said they did, in fact, look forward to going to work.

What motivates them is often the social aspect of work, the challenge and the sense of purpose, says study author and University of Toronto sociology professor Scott Schieman. By contrast, de-motivating factors tend to include the commute, overload, boredom and toxic professional relationships.

Seven per cent were on the fence, while 38 per cent said they don’t look forward to going to work. “I work too hard and am paid too little, much as you, the person reading this, probably are,” said a 23-year-old budtender (someone who helps customers purchase cannabis products), adding: “Our economy is completely screwed and I don’t think things will change.” And a 32-year-old administrative assistant admitted they liked their job, but it took up too much of their life. “I am exhausted, and hate that our lives mostly revolve around work,” they said.

In that 38 per cent of workers who don’t like going to work, the word ‘dread’ and the idea of anticipated overwork appear constantly. “I dread the workload that awaits,” said a 33-year-old civil engineer.

“It’s become unmotivating to work,” said a 49-year-old event and marketing coordinator. “Piles of work [are] expected to be completed as fast as possible without recognition of time constraints. It’s demanding without appreciation of the extra effort … I’m one of the millions who report for work, do their jobs and come home unsatisfied, dreading the next workday when they repeat the cycle.”

These findings of the U of T study contrast with numerous books and studies in recent years that paint the workplace as hostile or indifferent to the people who toil in them. This includes “Work Won’t Love You Back”, a book by U.S. labour journalist Sarah Jaffe that argues loving one’s job is a recipe for exploitation.

In 2022, an annual Gallup poll on the state of work worldwide found 44 per cent of workers experienced a lot of stress the previous day. More than half of all workers report actively or passively searching for new employment and nearly 60 per cent of workers reported ‘quiet quitting,’ or feeling disconnected from the purpose and goals of their employers.

However, Prof. Schieman, who researches the relationship between work and identity, says the narrative of nasty bosses and tuned-out workers doesn’t fit his findings.

“By all means, there are some,” Prof. Schieman told The Globe and Mail. “But it’s not most workplaces. It’s not most workers.”

That was true even during the worst days of the pandemic, he added. According to the Canadian Quality of Work and Economic Life Study, over all job satisfaction remained mostly stable between 2019 and 2022.

Approval ratings for supervisors, which was also asked about in the survey, also remained high during that time, a phenomenon Prof. Schieman credits to a lot of supervisors easing up on subordinates during tough times.

Feelings of job overload dropped, too, according to Prof. Schieman’s findings. In 2019, around 22 per cent of survey respondents said they ‘often’ felt the demands of their job exceeded the time they had available to do their work, while 19 per cent said this was ‘very often.’ As of Sept. 2023, those figures were 17 per cent and 15 per cent, respectively.

That said, perceptions of work are shifting, especially since the rise of living costs over the past few years. For much of his career, Prof. Schieman’s research focused on what workers think of their own conditions. These days, he’s also started asking how Canadians and Americans compare their situation to the average worker.

Prof. Schieman’s latest study with market research and polling company YouGov on perceptions of work is set to be released in late November, and he says the gap between how workers think about their own jobs compared to the broader workforce is eye-popping. “Most people are much more positive about their own experiences and really think things are bad out there,” he said.

Ultimately, Prof. Schieman believes work is incredibly valuable beyond its contributions to GDP growth and paycheques. To him, it can provide a sense of community, purpose and pride, and even contribute to a worker’s health and well-being. Getting out of bed for a 9 a.m. meeting isn’t always easy, but Prof. Schieman says work is one of the strongest predictors of good mental health and well-being. It is an essential aspect of workers’ lives, even if it isn’t always a thrilling one.

“My argument,” he says, “is that I think we might want to be careful about tearing work down too much.”

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