The Value Of Meaningful Work

If employees suspect a company’s stated values are self-serving or inauthentic, motivation declines. You can’t fake meaning—people either feel it or they don’t.

Meaning is different from purpose. Purpose is shared; meaning is personal. Employees can share the same purpose but feel differently about their roles. For example, a hospital’s purpose could be stated as, “To provide compassionate care to our community.” An emergency room nurse there might find his greatest sense of meaning by making quick decisions in acutely stressful situations. A patient advocate might find her greatest meaning in helping a family afford care. A recruiter’s great pride could be finding community-oriented employees.

Employees want to believe their work is meaningful, and this is particularly true of the upcoming generation of employees. Millennials and Gen Z employees say meaningful work is important to their choice of a job and an employer. Trust is a factor in that choice, however, because if employees suspect a company’s stated values are self-serving or inauthentic, motivation stalls and can even drop. In other words, you can’t fake meaning—people feel it or they don’t.

Workhuman’s Employee Experience Index found that meaningful work is the largest contributor to a positive employee experience, according to our research. When we weigh which of the six workplace factors make a positive experience, we find that the top three factors account for more than half the difference between a positive or negative experience.

Building upon a foundation of meaningful work (which contributes 27 percent to employee experience), we found that a more positive employee experience can be inspired by combining and integrating the five other human workplace practices seen in Figure 5.1 above. The first four in terms of the next highest percentages include enabling empowerment and voice (contributes 17 percent to employee experience), fostering a culture of recognition, feedback, and growth (contributes 16 percent to employee experience), supporting coworker relationships (contributes 16 percent to employee experience), and building organizational trust (contributes 15 percent to employee experience). The final driver of a more human workplace is work-life balance and opportunities to recharge and disconnect, which contributes 9 percent to employee experience.

When asked in a 2017 Workhuman survey, “What makes you stay at your company?” the top answer for 32 percent of respondents was, “My job—I find the work meaningful.” Among those who had been recognized within the last six months, 93 percent agreed with the statement, “The work we do at my organization has meaning and purpose for me.”

The culture shift isn’t universal or complete, but the trend is clear, and the addition of purpose as a brand attribute is nowhere felt more strongly than in employment. Again, millennials and generation Z want businesses to meet societal needs. These employees are global in their outlook, and they look to employers to be good global citizens, which means balancing profit with protecting the planet; embracing diversity, inclusion, and social mobility; promoting learning as part of daily work; leading the way in protecting privacy and preventing digital threats; and acting ethically in their business practices. Businesses that fulfill these promises attract and retain the best and brightest talent. According to consulting firm Mercer, thriving employees are three times more likely to work for a company with a strong sense of purpose. Human resources leaders get the message—concerns around corporate responsibility to address societal issues doubled among them from 2018 to 2019. As they seek to improve the employee experience, leaders need to understand that meaning is a critical component. As Deloitte researchers put it in their comprehensive HR Trends report of 2019, “We see an opportunity for employers to refresh and expand the concept of ‘employee experience’ to address the ‘human experience’ at work—building on an understanding of worker aspirations to connect work back to the impact it has on not only the organization, but society as a whole.”

People seek to belong. When you consider the role of relationship and community in the human enterprise, says Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, you understand that work can contribute to basic happiness. Achor observed at Workhuman Live that the original Star Wars catchphrase was “May the force of others be with you” (emphasis added). He stressed the importance of putting the force of others back in the formula of finding happiness and meaningful life. As people become more positive, more connections are made. “If we’re trying to achieve happiness and success by ourselves, we can’t get there,” he said. “We can go further together and enjoy the experience.”

While it’s true that unhappy employees often quit because they suffer a difficult relationship with their manager, the opposite is also well documented (e.g., people with strong relationships to managers stay longer and are more productive and more engaged). Good managers understand intrinsic motivation, and their individualized approach to building relationships results in higher productivity.

Good managers also remember that every employee is an individual in all the senses I’ve discussed. People experience their own story, seek their own meaning, determine their own purpose, and make relationships according to all their life experiences, temperaments, desires, life stages, and beliefs. Good managers in the human enterprise empower everyone to act on this fundamental truth because it is the most powerful way to create engagement and belonging, which drive corporate goals like growth, profitability, and longevity.

Excerpted from MAKING WORK HUMAN: How Human-Centered Companies are Changing the Future of Work and the World (McGraw-Hill Education, 2020).

Eric Mosley and Derek Irvine are CEO and SVP, respectively, of Workhuman (formerly known as Globoforce). Mosley and Irvine have spent more than two decades showing how to implement a culture of performance and gratitude in the workplace―and thereby seizing competitive edge, increasing profitability, and driving business momentum.