If you have never seen Shawn Achor's TED talk, The Happy Secret To Better Work, you should definitely watch it. It is my all-time favorite TED talk. It is funny, informative, and immensely insightful. It will make you question what you thought you knew about work and productivity.
I am a huge fan of Shawn Achor's research, which is why I became interested in the report he released with BetterUp at the end of 2018 called Meaning and Purpose at Work. The researchers surveyed 2,285 American professionals in 26 industries and various pay levels, company sizes, and demographics. The findings were revealing.
More than nine out of ten employees expressed willingness to trade a percentage of their compensation for greater meaning at work. How much money were they willing to give up for more meaningful work? 23% of their lifetime earnings. That is huge if you consider that Americans spend about 21% of their income on housing. This means that people value meaningful work more than the homes in which they live.
But it is not just about employees' happiness and satisfaction at work. According to the same study, employees who find their work highly meaningful generate an additional $9,078 for their company per year. Organizations save "an average of $6.43 million in annual turnover-related costs for every 10,000 workers, when all employees feel their work is highly meaningful."
Now that we know that meaningful work benefits both employees and employers, how do we build greater meaning in the workplace? The study provided three key recommendations.
1. Establish strong social support. Employees who experience high levels of social support report 47% higher workplace meaning than employees who work at companies with a culture of poor social support.
Establishing strong social support does not have to be complicated. Managers can explicitly share the aspects of work they find meaningful with their employees. Managers can also explain the connection between the team's projects and the company's overall purpose to help employees understand how their work ties to a company's larger vision.
This suggestion is consistent with Jacob Morgan’s advice in his recently published book, The Future Leader: 9 Skills and Mindsets to Succeed in the Next Decade.
"Employees want to see that their efforts are impactful and contributing to the overall purpose of the company. To set the example, leaders must first understand their own job, purpose, impact, and meaning before helping their employees do the same."
2. Make every employee a knowledge worker. Peter Drucker first coined the term "knowledge worker" back in 1959. Unlike manual laborers who are paid to perform physical tasks, knowledge workers think for a living. They are high-level workers who apply theoretical and analytical knowledge, which they typically acquire through formal training. Knowledge workers can solve complex problems and develop new products or services.
BetterUp's study found that knowledge workers experience greater meaning at work and derive an especially strong sense of meaning from a feeling of active professional growth. Knowledge workers get inspired by the company's vision and having the company's leaders solicit employees' feedback on how to achieve the vision.
3. Support meaning multipliers, i.e., leverage employees who find higher levels of meaning to act as multipliers of meaning throughout an organization. The best example of this is mentorship. Companies should connect mentors to other employees to share perspectives on what makes work meaningful for mentors.