The Search for Meaning

The Search for Meaning

Employees value salary, benefits and company leadership, but meaningful work drives job satisfaction more than ever.

By Brian O'Connell March 23, 2019
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​Ask a C-level executive what makes employees happy, and the response will likely start with salary and perks and end with Hawaiian shirt Fridays. What that corporate decision-maker may be missing, however, is an understanding of what really energizes staffers: the ability to spend their time doing meaningful work.

Data show that while professionals want more money and better benefits and will leave jobs because of bad managers, the quest for meaningful work drives job satisfaction for many workers. In fact, C-level managers may be surprised at just how much their employees value meaningful work.

According to a 2017 survey of over 2,000 workers by BetterUp Labs, a San Francisco-based leadership development platform, 9 out of 10 career professionals told researchers that they would sacrifice 23 percent of their future earnings—an average of $21,000 a year—for "work that is always meaningful."

​Bringing meaningful work to the table pays off for employers, too. Findings from BetterUp Labs' "Meaning and Purpose at Work" study include the following:

  • Career professionals who view their work as "very meaningful" put in an average of one extra hour per week.
  • Those employees take two fewer days of paid leave annually.
  • Employees who say they find meaning at work also express higher levels of job satisfaction, which links directly to greater productivity. In fact, the study reports that employees who rate their jobs as meaningful will generate an additional $5,437 per worker per year.
  • Employees who say their jobs are "highly meaningful" are 69 percent less likely to quit in the next six months and will stay with the company 7.4 months longer, on average, than staffers who don't believe they're in meaningful jobs.
  • Ensuring that managers and other more senior-level employees have meaningful work is especially important, as turnover costs associated with these positions are many times higher than for the average employee. At large enterprise organizations, for every 10,000 managers who view their work as highly meaningful, a company saves $55 million in annual turnover costs.

The unfortunate reality, however, is that too many people lack meaning at work. On average, according to the BetterUp Labs study, employees say their work "is about half as meaningful as it could be"—and that's a problem for companies.

"Providing meaningful work requires investing in employees at both the individual and cultural level," says Gabriella Rosen Kellerman, chief innovation officer at BetterUp. "In the long run, both will pay dividends to a company's bottom line in the form of talent retention and productivity."



Source: BetterUp Labs.

Defining Meaningful Work

​For companies to provide employees with opportunities for meaningful work, they first must understand what that means to each individual employee.

"Meaningful work is work that makes a difference and impacts society," says Scott Newton, vice president for care model solutions at TeleTracking, a health care services provider based in Pittsburgh. "Having a job that allows you to make a difference in someone's life is meaningful."

To Newton, the concept of meaningful work is universal but the ways in which people find meaning in their jobs will vary. 

​"For example, a salesperson may believe that their ability to sell a lifesaving technology to a company brings meaning to their work, while a public relations professional may believe that promoting the profile of the organization they work for is meaningful," he says. "Each person is defining meaning in his or her own way, but the meaning itself is the same."

Structurally, meaningful work is the result of three ingredients, notes Judy Dang, a productivity trainer and coach with San Francisco-based Avid at Work. Those three components are:

Having control over work. Companies can foster a meaningful work experience by creating a culture in which everyone feels empowered to make an important contribution, Dang says. "As long as employees deliver results, let them define how they go about it," she says. "Engineers should speak with customers and take customer service calls. Managers could trade jobs with a front-line employee for a week. Everyone should take a turn at the reception desk for one day."

Getting helpful feedback. "Companies should avoid giving feedback in private and avoid the employee-of-the-month-type awards," Dang says. "That saps motivation. When work is meaningful, we do it for the intrinsic reward, not for a silly certificate. We're adults, not pets." And managers can reward not just employees who achieved a goal, but also those who tried something new and didn't succeed. "That gives permission for innovation without the pressure to always get it right," she adds.

Knowing the work serves a higher purpose. "For example, my first job out of college was at a housing nonprofit in San Francisco," Dang says. "Every day, I saw the results of my contributions to ending homelessness. I was in an admin position and did not directly interact with clients, but I felt that I was doing my part to serve a higher purpose."


If More Work Had More Meaning People Would


Source: Servicenow.

Bringing Meaningful Work into the Real World

​Companies looking to initiate meaningful-work campaigns can take several steps to create a rewarding work experience for staffers:

Provide a strong mix of benefits. While perks and benefits are great, companies need to blend them with a forward-thinking plan. "Our team embraces personalized growth plans and challenging work, and a company has to show leadership in that regard," says Brian Samson, president of True North, a financial technology company based in San Francisco. "But perks stand out, too. We have weekly barbecues at the office and provide each team member $1,000 per year as a vacation bonus."

Facilitate growth opportunities. Helping employees move forward with their education and careers is another important factor in providing meaningful work. "Long-term employee happiness is created with growth opportunities," Samson says. "Offering a yearly education stipend isn't enough for us. We offer in-depth career mentoring as well. This allows us to get a comprehensive idea of career goals, so we can create custom training plans and promote upward mobility."


Employees Say Rubbish to Mundane Office Work–Where They Spend 40% of Their Time

Source: Servicenow.

"We recognize that professional development is important," TeleTracking's Newton says. "We invest in each employee as an individual and understand that each career is different. We know that our employees want to expand their skill sets and learn things that will make them successful in their careers."

Encourage a healthy work/life balance. "It's difficult to separate work life from home life when you work remotely, so we encourage our employees to unplug as much as needed by offering unlimited vacation days," Samson says. "Stepping away from their computer and relaxing allows for employees to recharge, increases their productivity and, more importantly, makes for a happy employee."

Invite employees to effect meaningful change. Meaningful work can also be a workplace platform that promotes building a better world, with employees proudly effecting change.

"It's about making a positive difference as the outcome of your work, either directly or indirectly," says Claire Barham, marketing communication team leader at N2 Publishing in New Bern, N.C. For example, Barham cites her job in the marketing department as a way to share the story of her company with others who may be well-suited to run their own publication.

Additionally, "Because I contribute to the success of my company, and because N2 commits 2 percent of annual revenue to nonprofits who fight human trafficking, I'm indirectly helping to save the lives of thousands of trafficking victims worldwide," she says. "Both avenues of impact work together to bring meaning to my work."

Make meaningful work a year-round concept. Fostering a meaningful work culture starts with bringing people on to your team who believe in what the company stands for and in the products and services you provide to others, Barham says. "The impact your company has on the world shouldn't simply be mentioned once at the annual holiday party. It should be discussed in different ways many times throughout the year."

Nurture interests outside the workplace. While an organization should believe that its work is meaningful and build that belief into the employee experience, it's also important to recognize that employees have other interests away from the company. "There may be causes outside of the office that employees are passionate about," Newton says. "Recognize this, invest in your employees' interests, and support them."

At TeleTracking, Newton says, giving back is one of the company's core beliefs. "We offer employees volunteer time at an organization of their choosing," he says

Watch for burnout. Meaningful work can have a downside, too, says Sylvia Melena, author of Supportive Accountability: How to Inspire People and Improve Performance (Melena Consulting Group, 2018). "Meaningful work is such a powerful motivator that it can drive people to work beyond reasonable capacity," she says. "When people feel that they're part of something significant and are compelled to perform at their best, they may increase their level of effort to compensate for organizational deficiencies, such as understaffing, lack of resources, inefficiencies and the like."

Working beyond capacity is, however, unsustainable over the long run and is detrimental to employee health and well-being. "It will impact employee burnout, stress and turnover," Melena says.


Mundane Work Makes People Feel


Source: Servicenow.

Combining ‘Work’ with ‘Mission’

​The takeaway on meaningful work? To Newton, it's all about the idea that employees' work is also their mission.

"You've got to treat your employees as people and support their individual interests," he says. "If you do that, you'll create a meaningful work culture. This will also build organizational loyalty, which will increase motivation. Employees will be excited to show up for work each day, and they'll be invested in the organization."  

Brian O'Connell is a Bucks County, Pa.-based freelance business writer.

Explore Further



SHRM provides resources to help companies that are looking to offer their employees opportunities for meaningful work:

Author Dan Pontefract sets out to get to the core of how companies build and maintain employee engagement. He concludes that raising engagement is a matter of establishing each worker’s personal purpose and then identifying where it intersects with the organization’s purpose and the meaning derived from an individual’s specific job roel.

Developing and Sustaining Employee Engagement
Employees want to feel valued and respected; they want to know that their work is meaningful and their ideas are heard. Highly engaged employees are more productive and committed to the organizations in which they work.

Volunteerism Policy
Sample guidelines for employees who serve as volunteers in 501(c)(3) nonprofit community programs that either are of personal interest or are corporate-sponsored initiatives.

Meaningful Work Creates Meaningful Internships
Access to executives, projects related to their professional development and volunteerism opportunities draw interns to Adaptive Insights, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based software company.

Flexibility, Fairness, Trust, Empowerment Make Work Human
Companies that want to retain employees and keep them productive need to make sure workers are engaged and given opportunities to personalize their career experiences.

Finance Sector Needs New Focus on Culture to Attract Talent
Workers in the financial services industry—still rehabilitating its image for its role in the 2008 economic collapse—are searching for new jobs that offer flexibility, meaningful work and a chance to innovate.


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