“Meaning is the new money”
— Tammy Erickson, Harvard Business Review (HBR)
For years now, we’ve known that high salaries aren’t everything. People need to have a purpose at work, and that starts with having a job that provides meaning.
Today, we’re living through a meaning crisis. And it’s having a negative impact on business.
Though it can’t be directly correlated — at least not with any degree of accuracy — the reduction in productivity across most of the western world in the past decade must, to some extent, be related to people’s lack of enthusiasm for the work they do.
As thousands of LinkedIn influencers proclaim the joys of doing what you love, more than a third of people in the UK feel that the work they do is meaningless.
This matters a great deal. How can we expect our people to be productive in their roles if they feel that the work they do is meaningless?
No matter how focused, driven or (to some degree) productive, if people are doing work that they feel to be meaningless, the likelihood is, they’re not going to be as productive or engaged as they would be if they were doing work that they felt mattered.
Surely not all jobs can be meaningful?
Do some jobs in their essence have very little greater meaning on wider society? In some sense, yes. But meaning doesn’t have to sit within narrow terms. A hospital cleaner may be mopping floors ten hours a day. From a different perspective, they’re helping to save lives.
Even the most basic roles have meaning in some sense. People are also individuals, with unique motivations and expectations. A business manager role may fundamentally lack meaning for one person, but for another, it could be their lifelong calling.
It’s defining a role that’s important. Most job descriptions talk at length about how great a role is, without defining the potential downsides. Businesses worry that laying down the negative aspects from the get-go would reduce the number of applications.
This could well be the case. But the difference is that the people who apply for a role that clearly defines both bad and good will likely love the good and not mind the bad elements.
In this scenario, they are far more likely to find that specific job to have meaning than a highly competent technician who doesn’t mind the good and positively hates the bad parts of the job.
Businesses benefit by providing employees with work that has meaning
Employees who say they have ‘very meaningful’ work spend an additional hour a week working — equivalent to a 2.5% increase in productivity. They also take, on average, two fewer days paid leave each year — a further productivity boost of 1%.
Based on established job satisfaction-to-productivity ratios, HBR report that ‘highly meaningful work will generate an additional $9,078 (£7,500) per worker, per year versus workers who experience an average degree of meaning’.
At the time of writing, the average salary in the UK is £29,009. Not only are employees willing to take a 23% pay cut to find meaningful work, but the resultant productivity gains are equivalent to a 26% pay rise for every single worker.
People are willing to forego salary to have a more meaningful job
In response to the question, “if you could find a job that offered you consistent meaning, how much of your salary would you be willing to forego to do it?,” workers in the US said they’d be willing to forego 23% of their entire future lifetime earnings in order to have a job that was always meaningful. 23%. Almost a quarter.
This is not a statistical outlier. In a study undertaken by author and TED speaker Shawn Achor, nearly 80% of respondents would rather have a boss who cared about them finding meaning and success in work than receive a 20% pay increase.
Similarly, in the paper ‘Accepting Lower Salaries for Meaningful Work’, the authors noted that:
- On average, participants reported minimum acceptable salaries that were 32% lower for personally meaningful jobs compared to jobs that were perceived as personally meaningless
- The enhancement of a job’s apparent meaningfulness lowered the minimum acceptable salary that participants required for the position
- Participants who experienced more meaningful work lives were more likely to turn down higher-paying jobs elsewhere. Furthermore, this relationship was stronger among employees in 2015 compared to 2005
- Participants who reported having more meaningful work were less willing to leave their current jobs and organisations for higher-paying opportunities
All of these statistics remained stable even when controlling for demographic factors and differences in job characteristics. Regardless of job type, meaning matters — not only for employees but for businesses, too.
Meaningful work increases employee retention
Additional business value comes in the form of increased retention rates. Employees who find work highly meaningful are 69% less likely to plan on quitting their jobs within the next six months and have job tenures that are 7.4 months longer on average than employees who find work lacking in meaning.
Likewise, research by Penna echoed these findings, summarising that: ‘organisations that devote resources towards creating meaning at work can anticipate increased motivation (55%), loyalty (42%), pride (32%) and productivity (20%).
Though the benefits of meaningful work are significant for both workers and businesses, organisations are falling short in providing it.
We already know this, but it’s not filtering through
Strangely, business executives know this. When asked how much more productive they are at their peak versus ‘on-average’, the most common answer from executives is a fivefold increase. However, most executives report they are ‘in the zone’ less than 10% of the time.
What’s more, when those same executives detail the bottlenecks in achieving peak performance, more than 90% point to aspects centred on meaning.
This gap presents both a challenge and opportunity for businesses. In today’s hyper-competitive talent market, candidates can choose where they want to work and demand what they want from work — including meaning. If talented workers aren’t offered roles with meaning, it’s easy (and often preferable) for them to jump ship.
For businesses to attract and retain talent and improve productivity, they need to build greater meaning. Meaning can no longer be a minor consideration — it needs to be a business imperative.