What is more important to your workers: the reward of a monthly paycheck or the meaning they derive from their work?

Today, we live in a highly dynamic and very demanding business environment.

Owing to the ubiquity of digital communication technologies like email, mobile devices, and virtual conferencing, the average worker today spends more hours at work each week than they spend on anything else.

The promise of a monthly paycheck and benefits is nowhere near enough compensation for the amount of time, effort and life that employees are investing in their work.

Various studies have shown that in return for their work, the American worker expects something more than a paycheck at the end of the month.

According to a study published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior, there is only a marginal relationship between current compensation levels and job satisfaction.

On the other hand, another study shows that people are increasingly considering the meaningfulness of their work when selecting jobs.  Like this 2011 HRB article argued, meaning has become the new money.

Well, if meaning is more important than money, why are more organizations still focused on compensation rather than the creation of meaning as a way of keeping their employees motivated?

This can be attributed to the fact that, so far, two pieces of information that business leaders need in order to act on the finding that meaning is more important than compensation have been missing.

First, there was no way of telling the actual worth, in dollars, of meaningful work. For businesses to invest in the creation of meaning at the workplace, business leaders need to be able to translate the concept of meaning into a dollar value.

Second, there has been lack of knowledge on what organizations can actually do to create meaning at work.

In a bid to uncover these two key pieces of information, and as a follow up to their study on loneliness at work, leadership development platform BetterUp conducted a survey of over 2200 American workers across 26 industries and across a range of demographics, company sizes, and compensation levels.

The findings of the survey were released in the Meaning and Purpose at Work report.

Below, let’s take a look at some of the findings from the report.


To most business leaders, meaningful work is still a “soft” concept, one that is difficult to quantify, and one that does not have much impact on the organization’s bottom line.

While there have been several articles in the recent past talking about the importance of meaningful work, they have left some important questions unanswered: What is the impact of meaningful work on employee performance? How does meaning affect the company culture? And what is the impact of meaning on a company’s bottom line?

One of the first goals of BetterUp’s survey was to find whether meaningful work can be tied to a monetary value.

The survey found out that more than 90% of employees would be willing to give up a percentage of their earnings throughout their lifetime in exchange for more meaningful work.

This finding was consistent across workers of different ages and different compensation levels. This shows that meaningful work is so important to workers that they are willing to pay for it.

But just how important is meaningful work to individual employees? How much are employees willing to pay for meaningful work? In other words, if an employee was offered a job that provides meaningful work, how much would they be willing to have cut from their current salary in exchange for this job?

This question was asked to the 2,200+ respondents, and the finding was that, on average, the American worker would be willing to take a 23% pay cut of the entire earnings they will possibly make in their lifetime in exchange for a job that offered consistent meaning.

This number was consistent across workers of various ages, seniority levels, and compensation levels.

To show the magnitude of how much Americans are willing to give up in exchange for meaningful work, consider that the average American spends about 21% of their income on housing.

In other words, American workers are willing to spend more money in exchange for meaningful work than they spend on shelter, which is a basic need.

This is testament to how important employees consider meaningful work to be. It is also in line with one of the findings of Shawn Achor, one of the authors of the study, during a recent Conference for Women.

In the conference, Shawn conducted a quick survey of the attendees and found that almost 80% preferred having a boss who helped them find meaning at work to a 20% pay raise.

BetterUp also wanted to find out how much meaning was worth not just to employees, but also to the organization. To do this, they first polled employees on how important they considered meaningful work to be, and then compared the answers to the employees’ performance at work.

The researchers found out that the importance of meaningful work varied between different employees.

While the responses to the question “How important is it to you that your work is meaningful?” ranged from 0 (extremely unimportant) to 10 (extremely important), the average response was 7 out of 10, showing that majority of employees consider meaningful work to be very important.

Source: Meaning And Purpose At Work report

Source: Meaning And Purpose At Work report

In addition to finding out how important employees considered meaningful work to be, the researchers also found out that an employee’s score on this measure could be used to indicate how valuable they are to the organization.

First, the researchers found out that the more employees considered meaningful work to be important, they more likely these employees were to be knowledge workers or managers.

The researchers also found out that employees who considered their work to be meaningful were more likely to put in more time at work. On average, employees who find greater meaning in their work spend an additional hour on their work every week.

Taken cumulatively in a 50-week work year, the extra time spend working is equivalent to an additional $5,437 in output per employee every year, on average.

This means that, having a hundred workers who find their work to be meaningful can lead to an extra $500,000 in increased output for the organization every year.

The meaningfulness of work also has an impact on workplace absenteeism. The survey found out that employees who find their work to be as meaningful as they can imagine (about 5% of the respondents) take 2 fewer days of paid leave every year compared to other employees.

The survey also found out meaningful work has an impact on one of the most important markers of an organization’s health – job satisfaction.

According to the survey, employees who report their work as very meaningful have 14% greater job satisfaction compared to the average worker.

In addition, their job satisfaction levels are 51% higher compared to workers that report their work to be least meaningful. This is very important because job satisfaction is closely linked to increased workplace productivity.

Using established job satisfaction to productivity ratios, the researchers estimated that having employees engage in highly meaningful work can lead to an additional output of over $9,000 per employee every year.

Aside from increased hours at work and increased job satisfaction, highly meaningful work can also generate value for the organization in the form of retained talent.

This is because there is a close link between the level of meaning in employees’ work and their likelihood of quitting.

According to BetterUp’s survey, employees who see their work as highly meaningful are 69% less likely to consider quitting within the next six months compared to employees who see their work as least meaningful.

The relation between meaning and employee retention is more pronounced for senior employees.

According to the survey, 5.4% of managers who do not experience meaning in their work have plans to quit their jobs in the next six months, which is 50% higher than the national average turnover rate within the United States.

On the other hand, among junior employees who do not find meaning in their work, only 4.3% are thinking of quitting in their near future. Among managers who experience meaning in their work, only 1.5% plan to quit in the near future, which is less than half of the national average.

Considering that the cost of replacing an employee ranges from about 20% of the employee’s annual salary to over 200% of the employee’s annual salary for highly skilled workers and senior level employees, the increased employee retention due to meaningful work can lead to huge savings for organizations. This is especially true for employees at the managerial level.

For every 1000 managers who consider their work to be highly meaningful, 38 managers remain at work who would have otherwise quit in the near future. This increased retention at the senior level can lead to savings of about $5.4 million every year.

What’s more, the survey found that the degree of meaning in their work has an impact on employees’ level of professional success.

In addition to a higher likelihood of being managers, employees who consider their work to be highly meaningful are 10% more likely to have received a salary increase within the last one year, and 5% more likely to have been promoted in the last six months in comparison to employees who do not experience any meaning from their work.


Despite all the benefits to be gained from multiple work, and despite majority of employees being hungry for meaning work, most companies are falling short when it comes to providing this kind of work.

According to the survey, most employees only find their work to be as meaningful as it could possibly be. Half of employees feel that their job lacks purpose, and only about 1 in 20 employees report that their job provides as much meaning as they could imagine having.

To organizations, this lack of meaningful work is both an opportunity and a challenge. In an environment where most employees are hungry for meaningful work, your top talent will not think twice about jumping ship if they find other jobs that offer meaning.

Therefore, any organizations that do not want to lose productivity and talent must respond by providing meaning to employees.

The problem for organizations, however, is how to provide meaning. To some extent, meaning is a personal matter.

What drives meaning for one employee might be meaningless to another employee. So, how can organizations address such an issue that is so intensely personal to employees?

The Meaning and Purpose at work report suggests various approaches that organizations can use to create meaning for employees. These include:

Enhance Social Support Networks Within the Organization

The survey by BetterUp found that employees who work in organizations that have strong workplace social support are also more likely to find meaning in their work.

According to the survey, employees who reported that their organizations have a high level of social support also reported experiencing 47% higher levels of meaning in their work compared to employees who report that there are poor levels of social support in their organizations.

In other words, strong company cultures that bolster social support lead to a sense of collective, shared purpose, which in turn leads to increased meaning at work.

The survey also found out that for employees who receive social support at work and who feel that there is a sense of shared purpose within the organization, the likelihood of these employees quitting reduces by 24%, while the likelihood of getting a salary raise increases by 30% compared to employees who receive social support but do not feel that there is a sense of shared purpose.

The researchers also reported that, in organizations that have supportive cultures, there is almost a 100% increase in the feeling of being inspired by the organization.

There is also an increase in all other factors that contribute towards a sense of meaning at work.

Therefore, by investing in creating an atmosphere that bolsters social support and a sense of collective purpose, organizations can realize a significant increase in levels of workplace meaning.

And according to the book Big Potential by Shawn Achor, one of the authors of the Meaning and Purpose at Work report, social support also has an impact on the degree of employee happiness and success at work.

There are many simple tactics that organizations can use to enhance social connection within the organization and create a sense of shared purpose.

For instance, having employees share their experiences of meaningful work can help create a social connection between employees.

As a business leader, you should encourage your managers to have discussions with their staff about what they consider to be meaningful in their work.

In addition, managers should take time to explain to their staff how their work contributes to the goals and objectives of the organization.

When employees know how their work ties to the larger vision of the organization, they are more likely to see their work as meaningful.

Of course, in order for managers to adopt these habits, they might need to undergo some coaching, and the organization might also need to come up with ways of incentivizing these habits.

In the long run, however, doing this can go a long way in instilling a sense of collective purpose within the organization.

Make Every Worker a Knowledge Worker

BetterUp’s survey found that knowledge workers were more likely to consider their work as meaningful compared to other workers.

The strong sense of meaning among knowledge workers comes from the feeling that they are growing professionally.

In addition, knowledge workers are also more likely to be inspired by their organization’s vision, because they can see how their work contributes to the overall vision.

On the other hand, employees who handle repetitive tasks are the least likely to experience meaning in their work because these tasks have become rote. Handling such mundane work makes employees disengaged.

Fortunately, research shows that when given the chance, workers can turn all work into knowledge work. This is great because it gives organizations and employees a chance to engage in knowledge work, which in turn will make work feel more meaningful for all employees.

One of the best ways to turn all kinds of work into knowledge work is to encourage all employees to employ creativity in their roles. When employees have the freedom to show their creativity, share knowledge and make decisions on how to do their work, work no longer becomes mundane.

Very often, business leaders view the people in the trenches (such as assembly line workers, warehouse workers, retail floor clerks, etc.) as automatons whose only role is to follow orders.

However, since they are the ones in the trenches, these employees have a lot of valuable insights on how businesses can improve their operations.

By engaging these employees and asking for their suggestions and feedback, not only do you discover opportunities to improve company processes, you will also make their work feel more meaningful to them.

Another way of turning all work into knowledge work is to provide employees with clear opportunities for personal growth.

When employees know that they have a chance to grow, their work stops being mundane. They are constantly trying to learn new things and improve in order to be able to grow.

Knowing that they have a chance to reach new heights, and constantly working to achieve this growth increases the level of meaning employees experience in their work.

Of course, managers and the organization as a whole should also proactively provide support to the employees in their pursuit of personal and professional growth.

Leverage Meaning Multipliers at All Levels

All employees do not experience meaning equally. The level of meaning they experience in their work depends on their demographic profile, their stages in life, and even their profession.

For instance, the oldest 10% of workers are 17% more likely to find meaning in their work compared to younger employees.

Generally, the longer an employee has spent in their career, the more likely they are to be committed to the organization and to enjoy higher levels of job satisfaction.

For employees who are actively raising children, there is a 12% higher likelihood of finding meaning in their work compared to employees without children.

Employees who consider themselves to be religious are 20% more likely to find meaning in their work compared to nonreligious employees.

Women are 7% more likely than men to find their work meaningful. Employees who hold graduate degrees are 27% more likely to find meaning in their work compared to employees with less education.

In addition, employees who work in professions that are service oriented, such as education, medicine, and social work are more likely to find meaning in their work compared to other employees.

Employers can create a sense of meaning across the organization by leveraging employers who are more likely to find meaning in their work to act as multipliers of meaning.

For instance, you can have employees who find more meaning share their experiences and their perspectives on what creates meaning in their work.

You can have older, experienced employees (who are more likely to see their work as meaningful) provide mentorship to younger employees.

You can also provide coaching opportunities to less educated employees and give them opportunities to share their insights on how to improve operations.

All these initiatives will lead to multiplication of meaning across the entire organization.


The old approach where employees simply exchanged their time and labor in exchange for money is outdated.

Today, workers want not only to be paid for their work, they also want to do work that is meaningful.

So much, in fact, that 9 in 10 employees are willing to earn less money in exchange for more meaningful work. They are also willing to jump ship and move to organizations that offer this kind of work.

Fortunately, offering meaningful work is beneficial for organizations. Organizations that provide meaning to their workers are more likely to see an increase in productivity, increased job satisfaction among their employees, reduced absenteeism, and reduced turnover.

Providing meaningful work provides organizations with an effective yet cost friendly way of motivating their employees, and if you have not yet started taking action to provide more meaning for your employees, it’s time you started doing that. After all, meaning is the new money.

9 Out of 10 People Are Willing to Earn Less Money to Do More-Meaningful Work

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