Well-Being in Life and Well-Being at Work: Which Comes First? Evidence From a Longitudinal Study

Understanding reciprocal relationships between specific arenas in life and at work is critical for designing interventions to improve workplace health and safety. Most studies about the links between dimensions of well-being in life and at work have been cross-sectional and usually narrowly focused on one of the dimensions of the work-life well-being link. The issues of causality and feedback between life and work well-being have often not been addressed. We overcome these issues by measuring six aspects of well-being for both the work arena and life in general, using longitudinal data with a clear temporal sequence of cause and effect, and by explicitly accounting for feedback with potential effects in both directions. 954 Mexican apparel factory workers at a major global brand participated in two waves of the Worker Well-Being Survey. Data on life satisfaction and job satisfaction, happiness and positive affect, meaning and purpose, health, and social relationships in life and at work were used. Lagged regression controlling for confounders and prior outcomes was employed. Sensitivity analysis was used to assess the robustness of the results to potential unmeasured confounding.

For the relationships between life satisfaction and job satisfaction and between happiness in life and happiness at work effects in both directions were found.

Nevertheless, indication of a larger effect of life satisfaction on job satisfaction than the reverse was obtained.

For depression and meaning in life, there was evidence for an effect of life well-being on work-related well-being, but not for the reverse.

For social relationships and purpose, there was evidence for an effect of work-related well-being on life well-being, but not the reverse.

Relationships based on the longitudinal data were considerably weaker than their respective cross-sectional associations.

This study contributes to our understanding of the nature of the relationship between aspects of well-being in the arenas of life and work. Findings from this study may facilitate the development of novel workplace programs promoting working conditions that enable lifelong flourishing in life and at work.


Although the influence of work on occupational health and safety has been long recognized (1), importance of work for well-being has been gaining scientific attention only recently (26). The impact of employee health on work has been traditionally examined through the lenses of physical and mental disabilities that limit chances for performing certain jobs (79). Recently the topic of worker well-being has been gaining attention in the field of occupational health. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (CDC/NIOSH) launched in 2011 the Total Worker Health® program that integrates protection against work-related and health hazards with promotion of injury avoidance and illness prevention to advance worker well-being (1012). The World Health Organization introduced the Model for Action, which advocates for workers’ health, safety and well-being on and off the job (13). Similar conceptual idea, highlighting the importance of achieving living and working conditions that enable people to engage and thrive at work over their lives, lies behind the concept of sustainable work over the life course which was introduced in the European Union to help people maintain health, develop skills and achieve financial security, work–life balance, meaningful work, and sense of self-fulfillment in the workplace (14). These worker well-being promoting initiatives emerge in labor market policies (14) and are subsequently integrated into companies’ strategies (1215).

We argue that understanding the reciprocal relationships between well-being aspects at work and in life is critical to design policies to improve not only workplace health and safety but also employee satisfaction and well-being. Unfortunately, studies about the links between dimensions of well-being in life and at work have been usually narrowly focused on one of the dimensions of the work-life well-being link and additionally—have been mostly cross-sectional making causal inference implausible. The aim of this paper is to offer a more holistic outlook of the relationships between well-being at work and well-being in life by evaluating reciprocal relationships between six dimensions of well-being (such as life satisfaction, happiness, meaning, purpose, mental health, and social relationships) and their work-related counterparts while considering the bi-directional effects between work and life for each of the dimensions over time. This perspective contrasts with numerous well-being studies that not only limit well-being to a single life-related measure but also conceal the role of work as a driver for human flourishing and disregard the value of promoting flourishing in life to enhance flourishing at work. Consequently, in this article we hypothesize that for each of the six dimensions, significant reciprocal relationship between well-being in life and well-being at work can be established. In other words, we test a hypothesis that well-being while at work positively influences well-being in life and well-being in life is beneficial for well-being while at work.

Literature Review

One of the most examined relationships between well-being and work has been the one between subjective well-being (SWB)1 and job satisfaction (1619). This relationship has been subject to scrutiny over the past decades, with early contributions dating back to the 1950’s (20). Previous studies, however, identified only a modest to moderate association between SWB and job satisfaction (1619). Limited evidence, however, is available for the relationship between other dimensions of well-being in life and their counterparts related to well-being at work.

Many existing studies are also hardly conclusive due to serious methodological limitations. Most of the studies have been based on cross-sectional study designs (1821), which rendered it impossible to establish any causal link. Limited longitudinal research carried out so far mainly focused on the relationship between the broad concepts of life satisfaction and job satisfaction without delving into its constituents [see (16) for a review] or work-life conflict (2223), avoiding a scrutinized study of other aspects of well-being in the arena of life and work.

Theoretical and empirical lack of agreement on the directionality of the relationship between well-being and work further complicates the interpretation and assessment of the findings (16). For instance, the part-whole theory (2425) posits that specific aspects of life (e.g., work) influence well-being, whereas the dispositional approach (2627) claims that it is well-being that has a causal effect on specific aspects of life (e.g., work).

Additionally, regarding the directionality of the relationship, a heated dispute arose between proponents of the spillover approach, advocating for a reciprocal, positive relationship between specific aspects of life (e.g., work) and well-being (1628), the compensation approach, assuming that dissatisfaction in one sphere is compensated by search for enrichment in the other (thus envisaging a negative relationship), and the segmentalist approach, making a case for a lack of relationships between the two areas (29). Current evidence is thus inconclusive and thus all hypotheses about the cause and the effect remain plausible.

The conceptual and operational definitions of well-being in life and well-being at work have been refined more recently as well. The definitions shifted from early characterizations in broad affective terms to more articulate, conceptually sharper ones (30), which provide relatively robust and consistent frameworks necessary for a scientific analysis (16). For example, consideration of job and life satisfaction is now combined in notions of employee well-being (3133) and more well-being interventions are proposed to ensure that workers are both happy (or high in well-being) and productive (have high performance) (3435).

However, the nature of the work-life link is still unclear. Despite strong evidence provided by Bowling et al. (16) that the effects are bi-directional and life satisfaction affects job satisfaction more than job satisfaction affects life satisfaction, the issue of the direction of causality and strength of bi-directional relations between dimensions of well-being at work and well-being in life remains fundamentally open and unexplored. Although recent research has extended our contextual knowledge about the possible effects on the job-life satisfaction relationship [for example the effects of: burnout (3637), positive affect or negative affect (1928), job importance (38), work-family conflict (1928), work-life balance (3940), workplace friendship (4142), job insecurity (43), and even geographical remoteness (44)], a more comprehensive approach—as advocated also by Neve et al. (2) is needed. However, it is worth noting that a distinction between workplace well-being from general well-being has been recently recognized (33). Still, limited evidence on how particular aspects of general well-being affect their counterparts while at work and vice versa is available.

Consequently, this paper offers the following contributions in this relatively under-explored direction. First, by carrying out a longitudinal analysis it provides more robust evidence on the causal relationships between job and life satisfaction. Second, by studying in depth other aspects of well-being in the work and life sphere, such as happiness (45), meaning (46), purpose (47), mental health (48) and social relationships (49), our results provide an innovative framework for the analysis of the job vs. life dimensions of well-being studied in the literature as well as evidence for their causal directionality.


The results contribute to our understanding of the nature of the relationship between job satisfaction and life satisfaction, as well as between other dimensions of well-being in life and well-being at work. Generally, job satisfaction and happiness, but also purpose, and social connections while at work were found to influence their out-of-job counterparts 1 year later. With regard to the reverse direction, life satisfaction and happiness, but also depression and meaning in life were found to influence the work-related counterparts 1 year later. Thus, only for life satisfaction and happiness was there an evidence for effects running in both directions, confirming our research hypothesis about the reciprocal benefits between well-being in life and well-being at work. Other relationships were more unidirectional but not always necessarily indicative of an impact of work on life—the directionality more often acknowledged in the literature.

Our results are in some ways intuitive, but nonetheless they call for further scrutiny. Regarding happiness and life satisfaction, causal links in the happiness sphere in absolute terms turn out to be significantly stronger than those in the satisfaction sphere. This may be due to the fact that happiness, as a construct, also includes elements of coping resources and positive emotions (80), potentially eliciting more immediate connections between the work and life spheres. However, the feedback loops we found are in line with the two competing theoretical models of well-being: the bottom-up (situational) model and top-down (dispositional) model (27). The bottom-up model of well-being assumes that well-being is a sum of small pleasures. This implies, in turn, that life satisfaction and happiness may be situational and thus influenced by job satisfaction and positive affect while at work, respectively. Instead, according to the top-down model, each person tends to experience things in a particular, positive or negative way, thus well-being is dispositional (81). This is reflected in the way in which all life experiences are perceived, and in particular this implies that well-being is projected onto other variables. Specifically, the impact of life satisfaction on job satisfaction and of happiness in life on happiness while at work are anticipated. Consequently, life satisfaction and happiness may be both the cause (as in the top-down model) and the effect (as in the bottom-up model) of job satisfaction and positive affect while at work, respectively. This conclusion has been already made by other scholars, based on empirical evidence (8283) and on theoretical considerations conceptualized as the spillover model of well-being (188485).

For depression, it was shown that depression in life increases the probability of feeling depressed at work, but reports of feeling depressed at work were not found to increase probability of feeling depressed in general. Depression in life is likely to manifest itself at work as its symptoms are neither temporarily limited to the periods spent out-of-work nor spatially confined to the non-working environment. However, depression at work may depend on very context-specific conditions that do not necessarily reflect a more general susceptibility to depression. In particular, the evidence on the effects of workplace stressors [e.g., prolonged job strain (8687), increased job demand (8889) and limited job control (9091)] on the development of depression is moderate but the level of exposure to stressors that seems to be generally needed to cause depression still requires further investigation (869293).

Meaning in life was found to have an impact on meaning in one’s job, but the reverse relationship was not corroborated. Thus, no support was found for the assertion by Steger and Dik (94), Duffy and Sedlacek (95), and Allan et al. (46) that meaning at work translates into greater meaning in life. Instead, our findings were in line with the top-down theory of subjective well-being (27) or the dispositional approach (2627), according to which global well-being translates into domain-specific well-being.

Specifically, meaning refers to overall relatedness in a larger sense, such as coherence and significance of one’s experiences, whereas, purpose mainly refers to pursuit and aspiration of certain ends (5796). The one-directional causal links that we found seem to conform to intuition—with meaning, the more existential dimension, being driven by the life sphere, whereas purpose, the more goal-oriented dimension, being driven by the work sphere. This result appears to be in line with the findings of Steger and Dik (94), who report that both experiencing a calling and seeking life meaning are predictors of life meaning.

Similar to other studies (4142), we also found evidence that feeling close to people at work contributes to improved social connection in life. This finding corroborates Rumens’ [(97), p. 1149] assertion that “workplace friendships contribute to human flourishing.” However, the reverse relationship was not supported by our results. This is again a result that conforms to intuition, as social connection at work will contribute to one’s overall social well-being, but relationships outside of the workplace do not necessarily make workplace friendships any more likely. Additionally, social connection in the workplace may call for a more demanding social adaptation compared to the life sphere since, in the work environment, people have less control over the choice to associate with certain people or not, compared to their own out-of-work social environment, and the emotional control tasks in the former case are consequently more demanding (98). Additionally, it is natural that social relationships from work can spread (spill-over) into the life domain, while relationships from life are confined in the life domain. Despite recognition and effectiveness of word-of-mouth as a recruitment source (99100), one cannot expect to be able to often influence the hiring decisions of one’s employer based on non-work-related friendship.

In contrast to the majority of other studies, we used longitudinal data thus making a substantial adjustment for confounding and control for work and life characteristics, which are known to correlate with aspects of both well-being at work and well-being in life. Although cross-sectional analyses [both ours and those of other authors; see e.g., (19)] suggest presence of moderate to strong bidirectional relationships, our longitudinal results provide evidence for potential effects in both directions, with effect sizes of roughly equal magnitude only for the relationships of life satisfaction-job satisfaction, and happiness at work-happiness in general/life. This confirms the findings of the meta-analysis of the relationship between job and life satisfaction conducted by Bowling et al. (16) on 11 (eight published and three unpublished) longitudinal studies, which may be more valid as they account for the logical and temporal sequence of cause and effect and for prior levels of outcomes. Moreover, our results here also suggest that only unidirectional effects exist concerning meaning, purpose, mental health, and social connectedness. Although the Worker Well-Being Survey was designed to target working adults and examine worker well-being, it must be also noted that our sample of Mexican manufacturing workers may reflect specific social conditions and cultural inclinations. Different samples, covering jobs with different characteristics and professional profiles, or taken in different geographical and socio-cultural contexts, might yield different results. The literature shows that cross-country variation in the dimensions, which are the object of this study, should be expected, with a possibly prominent role played by the local level of social capital (101103). Likewise, work-related stress varies significantly across occupations (104105), and therefore—although we controlled for job demand and job control, which are well-known correlates of work-related stress and burnout (7576)—one can expect this source of variation to affect the relationship between well-being at work and in life. Consequently, there should be caution as to the generalizability of our results, and more research for different job profiles and in different geographical contexts should be carried out to gain a deeper insight. To this end, in particular, relatively more research effort should be directed toward longitudinal rather than cross-sectional studies, in order to improve our understanding of the structure of the causal relations between the work and life spheres of the other related variables of interest.

Our study made use of observational data. Most of the results presented in this study proved to be relatively robust to potential unmeasured confounding beyond a considerable number of measured potential confounders already included in the analyses. Thus, the evidence for causality was further strengthened. However, the results may still be subject to unmeasured confounding by personality, core self-evaluations, such as self-esteem, self-efficacy, locus of control and emotional stability (106107), as well as goal self-concordance (108). However, our sensitivity analysis indicates that, for an unmeasured confounder to explain the effect of the observed associations, it would have to be associated with both job-related and out-of-job well-being factors by a risk ratio equal in magnitude to at least 1.383, while in order to explain away the relationship between general depression and work-related depression an unmeasured confounder related to both measures of depression by more than four on the risk-ratio scale would be required.

We used two waves of data, which let us control for the baseline outcomes. However, future research should consider replicating the results using more waves of data to control also for the baseline exposure. Such analysis will provide further evidence for the robustness of our results.

Finally, in the analyses we relied on single item measures of well-being dimensions. Although it is a common practice to use multi-item measures in such a case, we argue that long instruments—despite the advantages of conceptual richness—are inferior to short instruments in studies focusing on a vast array of topics. Workers’ well-being study measures well-being along with physical and psycho-social working conditions, work safety and occupational health, job burden, job autonomy, job resources, work-family conflict, and others. In such a setting, a less time-consuming instrument may be beneficial. By being short enough for practical use in the workplace, it facilitates company’s efforts to improve the worker well-being (32). Criticism of short instruments—especially those with one item per domain—relates to elevated Type 1 and Type 2 error probabilities [see (109)] for evidence in the personality studies). Yet, such instruments can still be found in psychology (110111), educational psychology (112) and organizational behavior (113), among others. In the well-being field, it is worth noting that the United Kingdom Office for National Statistics—to avoid excessive costs and to enable widespread use—since 2011 includes a set of only four well-being questions in the UK National Survey (114).

In sum, we concede that work is just one arena to enhance well-being, however, given the amount of time spent at work across our lifetimes, seemingly a powerful one. Therefore, understanding the well-being ecosystem for impact areas and reciprocal relationships in life and at work is important to finding ways to intervene. Without this holistic view, the leverage points for optimizing well-being may be invisible or inadequate by an overemphasis or attribution to one sphere of influence only.


Front. Public Health, 09 April 2020
Sec. Occupational Health and Safety 
Volume 8 – 2020 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fpubh.2020.00103