Salary vs sleep: Which would you pick?

Which would you prefer: An $80,000 job with reasonable work hours and seven and a half hours of sleep each night, or a $140,000 job with long work hours and just six hours of sleep? A new study from researchers at Cornell, to be published in the American Economic Review, found that most people would pick the higher-paying job with more hours and less sleep.

Such a finding would be wholly unsurprising to most Americans working in an economic downturn if it weren’t for a prevailing theme in recent research about employee satisfaction and motivation. Surveys have been telling us for years now that people are valuing more vacation time or more flexible hours over better pay. People leave jobs not just because they aren’t paid enough, study after study tells us, but because they don’t get the attention they should, they don’t like their boss, or they don’t feel they have enough development opportunities. Author Dan Pink provided the capstone for this thinking in his popular 2009 book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, which explores how people are inspired by autonomy, mastery and purpose much more than they are by money.

There may even be a magic number in all this, researchers reported last year. In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and other researchers found that beyond a household income of $75,000 a year, money apparently “does nothing for happiness, enjoyment, sadness or stress.” When The New York Times spoke with Kahneman about the study, he said “it’s not so much that money buys you happiness, but that lack of money buys you misery.”

So what to make of a study that offers people two salaries above that supposedly magic $75,000 number? It’s hard to know. But after years of research that seems to say more and more money is mattering less and less, it finds that it still matters plenty. The Cornell study asked more than 2,600 participants to consider which option would make them happier, and even asked them if they thought their responses might be in error. Just 7 percent said they thought they were making a mistake, and only 23 percent admitted they might regret making such a choice between money and lifestyle, reports Futurity, a site that features new university research.

I’m no psychologist, economist or human resources expert. But it’s not hard to see that making an extra $60,000 a year—almost twice as much when the baseline is $80,000—for an hour less of sleep at night and a few more hours of work would not be a hard choice for many folks. I have to think the findings would have been quite different if the extra cash was more on the order of what someone making $80,000 might really be offered to move up into a different job—say, an extra $10,000 or $15,000. People deciding between jobs, after all, don’t typically have choices like this.

A study of that nature certainly would have been more useful to leaders trying to divvy up the dollars they can use to retain their best people between actual cash raises and benefit policies, leadership training and new development opportunities. Yes, salary may still matter. But leaders who ignore the many other reasons people make decisions—whether for a healthier lifestyle, more flexible hours, better bosses or greater opportunities—are sure to be disappointed in the results.

More from On Leadership:

The science behind saying you’re sorry

Are you a workplace Pollyanna?

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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