“Work is about a search…for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash…”

Studs Terke, Working

By now, we all know that work is about more than just income. We want something more out of work, that intangible experience called meaning. But if “meaning is the new money,” why haven’t we taken more concrete action to create workplace cultures that are meaningful in the eyes of our employees? 

Researchers surveyed over 2,000 employees across 26 industries and a range of pay levels, demographics and company sizes. They believe that if leaders knew how pervasive this need for meaning really is – and how easy it is to implement – they might create real culture change.

The surveyed pool were willing to forego 23% of their “entire future lifetime earnings” in order to have a job that was always meaningful

Just how much is meaningful work actually worth?

Researchers discovered that more than 9 out of 10 employees would trade a percentage of their income for more meaning at work. On average, the surveyed pool were willing to forego 23% of their “entire future lifetime earnings” in order to have a job that was always meaningful. In another study, researchers found that almost 80% of the respondents would rather have a boss who cares about meaning than receive a 20% pay increase.

Employees who find meaning, on average, spend an additional hour per week working and take two fewer days of paid leave per year. They’re 69% less likely to quit within the next 6 months, and they stay in jobs 7.4 months longer than employees who aren’t connected to meaning at work. (In bottom line results, this translates to $6.43 million saved in annual turnover-related costs for every 10,000 workers.)

The Opportunity

Employees find their work only half as meaningful as it could be. Only 1 in 20 rate their job as providing the most meaning possible. Today’s top talent can demand what they want, including meaning, and they will leave if they can’t find it. Meaning is now an imperative.

The Solution

Researchers condensed their results into 3 main recommendations for today’s leaders:

1. Social Support Networks
Employees who reported the highest levels of social support in the workplace scored 47% higher on measures of workplace meaning compared with those who reported the lowest. Specifically, employees benefit from the shared meaning that arises through social support. Companies can implement a few simple tactics to boost this measure. For one, higher ups can be more vocal about the meaning they find in their work, setting the expectation for the rest of the organization. Building in a few extra minutes into team meetings to articulate the connection between projects and the company’s larger purpose is an easy way to share meaning across levels and departments.

2. Knowledge
Research shows that knowledge workers experience more meaning at work than skill workers. They report personal and professional growth in their positions, and feel that they are co-creators in processes and decisions. Employees specifically enjoy the creativity and autonomy experienced in their roles. Managers can capitalize on this preference by simply asking for feedback, particularly from entry-level employees.

Today’s employees expect more than your run-of-the-mill development offerings. Indeed, to create meaning in today’s workplace, employers need to offer programs that impact employees on a personal level, as well as professional.

3. Multiply Meaning
Some workers are more prone to meaning than others. For example, older employees and parents are more likely to derive meaning from work than younger employees and non-parents. Industry also makes a difference; employees in service-oriented positions (medicine, education and social work) are more likely to find meaning than those in administrative support or transportation roles. Meaning can be spread via employee support networks, mentorship/sponsorship and everyday interactions amongst employees.


The simple exchange of money for work is antiquated in the modern workplace. Today, employees demand meaning from work; they’re willing to pay for it, and they’ll leave if they don’t find it. Creating a culture of meaning isn’t expensive or hard to do, and it only has upsides. If turnover and performance are issues in your organization, research shows you should look at meaning before paychecks.