'Something missing': At what age you're happiest (and unhappiest) at work

At the age of 30, Jo Green felt like "a square peg in a round hole" in her marketing job.

"Although it was interesting work, I felt like I could do more and wasn't fulfilling my potential," she said.

"There was something missing in it after a few years in it." 

Employees aged in their 20s and 30s are among the least happy in the Australian workforce and those aged over 55 are the happiest according to a survey of 2000 workers by recruiter Robert Half.

Jo Green is 35 and has had four career changes. Photo: Wolter Peeters

Jo Green is 35 and has had four career changes. Photo: Wolter Peeters

After making three career changes and travelling after studying biology at university, Ms Green, now aged 35, works from home in Glebe and has settled into her fourth job as a careers coach helping others navigating a similar journey.

"Having realised how hard it was to figure out what was going to be meaningful and fulfilling work for me and how stressful it was to change career, I decided it would be amazing to help other people to have a less stressful time changing careers," she said.

On a global scale of 0-100, Australia ranks fourth in the world, behind the US (72), Germany (71) and the Netherlands (70), according to the research. Australia (67.9) is ahead of Canada (67.8), the UK (67), Belgium (65) and France (64).

New findings from the Robert Half survey show that employees aged 35-54 are the least happy in the Australian workplace with a score of 67, closely followed by employees aged 18-34 with a score of 68.

A big pay packet didn't make up for the 12-hour work days and unpredictable travel schedule for Michael Johnson. Photo: Joe Armao, Fairfax Media

A big pay packet didn't make up for the 12-hour work days and unpredictable travel schedule for Michael Johnson. Photo: Joe Armao, Fairfax Media

Workers over the age of 55 are the happiest employees as they score 70 on a scale from 0 to 100.

Michael Johnson, 29, was working with the best in his field in a top-tier consultancy firm two years ago. The pay was great, but he was not happy. 

The 12-hour days and unpredictable travel requirements outweighed the job security and pay.

"At some point the trade-off wasn't worth it for me," he said.

Mr Johnson now works for himself in Melbourne as a contractor using online jobs platform Expert360, which gives him more freedom, higher pay and nine-hour days.

"It's working well for me," he said. "Where I am now, I enjoy what I do."

"I can pick and choose projects based on location, pay rates and the intensity of the work and the type of industry.

"So it's a lot more choice and freedom, less hours and more pay."

The down side is the lack of a structured learning experience and working with more experienced colleagues. 

Gaining professional fulfilment from the job appeared to get better with age with two thirds of Australian employees aged 18 to 34 and 70 per cent of those aged 35-54 saying they found their work worthwhile. That percentage rose to 82 per cent for employees over the age of 55.

Stress levels tended to decrease with age with one in three employees aged 18-34 and 29 per cent of those aged 35-54 saying they found their job stressful. The percentage dropped to 26 per cent for employees aged 55 and over. 

The Robert Half report found 67 per cent of Australian employees aged over 55 were satisfied with their work/life balance. That was higher than employees aged 18-34 at 57 per cent and those aged 35-54, 59 per cent.

Australian employees also found their work more interesting the older they were. Three in four aged over 55 found their work interesting, compared to 66 per cent of those aged 35 to 54 and 62 per cent of those aged 18-34.

David Jones, Senior Managing Director of Robert Half Australia said workplace happiness can have a tangible impact on productivity and profitability.

"With fulfilled employees, organisations can nurture a positive work culture," he said. "This has a tremendous impact on both staff morale and the business as a whole boosting satisfaction levels, enabling companies to remain competitive and directly impacting the bottom line."