Working conditions exert a strong impact on job satisfaction and on the risk of accidents and illnesses at the workplace . This entails consequences on our health and quality of life. Yet, determinants of working conditions have received scant attention by researchers so far.
Our study , based on data from an “ad hoc” module of the Italian Labour Force Survey, aims at filling this gap in the literature, investigating how working conditions are perceived by workers, and proposing a behavioral explanation. Data about working conditions stem usually from self-reported answers to anonymous questionnaires. Our main hypothesis is that workers automatically, and somehow unconsciously, operate a comparison between their actual and expected working conditions when asked to report their working conditions. More specifically, perceived working conditions would be the result of a subtraction between expected and actual working conditions. This behavioral approach is not new, but based on the reference point theory, an economic theory formalized and empirically validated, so important to deserve a Nobel prize for Economics, which was awarded in 2002 to Daniel Khaneman . The same result can lead to very different satisfaction levels according to expectations. This is the case for instance of winning a certain monetary prize in a lottery knowing that it is the top prize versus knowing that it is the lowest prize available. In the two cases, the satisfaction perceived will be different, since in the former case we would be delighted whereas in the latter we would be disappointed . Similarly, the same actual working conditions can be perceived differently by workers according to the working conditions they would expect.
If one accepts this line of reasoning, it is relevant to investigate personal characteristics of workers who have the same tasks to exert, with the same working conditions. Indeed, personal characteristics may influence expectations about working conditions, with a direct impact on perceived working conditions. Gender for instance seems to be a fundamental trait that affects the perception of working conditions. The first one to propose an interpretation in this direction was Clark , with his “gender-job satisfaction paradox”: women face on average worse working conditions than men, but report higher job satisfaction levels than their male counterparts. Since women are often secondary earners and highly involved in home production and since their working conditions are generally worse than men’s, they would hold lower expectations towards their job than men. This explanation is supported by the fact that women who are supposedly characterised by higher expectations (such as those in managerial positions or with mothers in a professional job) do not report a higher level of job satisfaction with respect to their male colleagues. According to Clark’s hypothesis, as soon as women are emancipated, the gender–job satisfaction gap will decrease.
Our analysis  is based on 42,198 workers, for whom we have various kinds of information on personal and work characteristics and especially on bad working conditions (both physical and psychological). Among the results, having a fixed-term contract leads to reporting lower levels of bad working conditions with respect to permanent workers. Our expectation interpretation in this case is corroborated by the distinction in terms of bad working conditions between temporary workers who aspired to a temporary contract and temporary workers who would have preferred a permanent contract. Moreover, women report lower levels of bad working conditions, which supports the previous findings by Clark  related to higher job satisfaction and a difference in their perception of physical vs. psychological bad working conditions that should be ascribed to the sphere of expectations. Education and information are key factors able to shift expectations about working conditions closer to the actual ones, diminishing cognitive biases and making workers more self-aware of their actual conditions. More in general, our analysis points out that variables concerning personal characteristics, such as gender, education and being employed in the first job, shift expectations about working conditions and accordingly perceived working conditions. On the contrary, variables related to work characteristics, such as working full time, with shifts and in a large place, affect actual and thus perceived working conditions (negatively).
 Cioni M., Savioli M., Safety at the workplace: accidents and illnesses. Work, Employment & Society, 30(5), 2016, pp. 858-875.
 Cicognani S., Cioni M., Savioli M., The secret to job satisfaction is low expectations: How perceived working conditions differ from actual ones, Department of Economics and Statistics Working Paper, n. 749, University of Siena, 2017.
 Kahneman D., Tversky A., Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk, Econometrica: Journal of the Econometric Society, 47(2), 1979, pp.263-291.
 Bell D. E., Disappointment in decision making under uncertainty, Operations Research, 33(1), 1985, pp.1-27.
 Clark A. E., Job satisfaction and gender: why women are so happy at work?, Labour Economics, 4(4), 1997, pp.341-372.