Happy coworkers

Should Your Work Be Meaningful?

4 min read • Feb 01, 2019 • Barry Eitel

A popular criticism often leveled at the millennial generation is that they put too large of an emphasis on finding “meaning” – whatever that means – in the workplace. Can’t they just earn a paycheck?

The criticism is unfair. According to a quick 2017 survey by Harvard Business Review, workers of all ages prize meaningful work. Many Generation X and Baby Boomer workers seek a reason to get out of bed in the morning; even workers born before 1945 thought meaningfulness was important.

“Meaningfulness” is completely subjective and can mean different things to different generations. The HBR report found that some older workers wanted to focus on honing skills and accomplishing career goals. Gen X workers appeared more interested in striking a work-life balance, while Millennials sought a community-like workplace.

Even as nebulous as the concept of meaning is, meaning is incredibly important to American workers. An HBR study released in November 2018 found that an astounding 90% of the 2,285 respondents would opt to earn less money for more meaningful work.

When drilling into the details, the researchers found that workers were willing to be paid significantly less if the job meant something to them.

“On average, our pool of American workers said they’d be willing to forego 23% of their entire future lifetime earnings in order to have a job that was always meaningful,” the researchers explained.

Another study by Canadian researchers in 2017 came to similar conclusions as HBR. In fact, they found that employers may be able to learn from workers’ love of meaning.   

“Collectively, these studies provide evidence that perceptions of meaningful work are able to reduce the emphasis on financial concerns when making job choices,” the scientists said in a study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

The companies of the future will build meaning into their workplace culture, argues Alexi Robichaux, CEO of employee analyst firm BetterUp.

“More than ever, people are on the hunt for meaning and that includes at work, where more and more of our time is spent,” Robichaux said in a statement. “To attract and retain top talent, and achieve optimal productivity, companies must build greater meaning into the workplace.”

Robichaux, who helped in the HBR meaningfulness survey, noted that employees who find their work highly meaningful stay at a job 7 months longer on average compared to workers who do not find their work meaningful.

“This research clearly shows that meaningful work is a win for the human condition, for companies, and for society at large,” Robichaux added. “Fostering meaningful work is emerging as a cornerstone of a more creative and conscious business world.”

On the whole, workers who do not find meaning in a job expect more money.

The Canadian researchers posited that companies should actively seek out candidates who would likely find the work personally meaningful. Companies could then offer smaller salaries for workers who enjoy the work.

“Because perceptions of meaning are inherently subjective, they may be a useful target for managerial efforts to contain costs — especially in organizations with limited financial resources,” the researchers noted.

However, trying to exploit our desire for meaning can backfire. Employees could notice that compensation levels are different and lose faith in a company. Pushing workers to sacrifice too much of their comfort, health, and work-life balance for a low-paying job can lead to burnout.

“Companies should therefore be careful when applying these results to avoid any undesired outcomes,” the researchers said.

BetterUp found that meaningful work does indeed drive employees to work harder and longer. In terms of time, an average employee doing meaningful work clocked an extra hour per week. In addition, that employee would take 2 fewer days of paid leave annually.

Just boosting an employee’s work experience from average to very meaningful adds an extra $9,000 in labor output annually.

In the HBR study, the researchers found workers ranked “personal growth” as the biggest single source of workplace meaning. The workers defined this as the ability to develop their inner selves.

Workers were also interested in professional growth, a shared purpose, and doing work that helps other people.

“In companies with cultures of strong social support, workers rate a collective sense of shared purpose as the most important way work feels meaningful,” BetterUp discovered. “Company culture significantly impacts the meaningfulness of work, the research shows.”

For the vast majority of workers today, meaningful work is more important than money. This sentiment is likely true of your employees, so it can help to find ways to make their work more meaningful. It could be true of you – now is not the time to scoff at those seeking meaning in their 9 to 5. Perhaps it’s time to join them and find more meaning in your career, whatever that means for you personally.  

Barry Eitel

Barry Eitel has written about business and technology for eight years, including working as a staff writer for Intuit's Small Business Center and as the Business Editor for the Piedmont Post, a weekly newspaper covering the city of Piedmont, California.