This Is What Happens When Employees Find Meaning at Work

Meaningful work is the spark that ignites intrinsic motivation: It leads employees to work hard because they want to, not because they have to.

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By Matt Straz

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Meaningful work is something everyone wants. Employees desire jobs with a purpose they can identify with; they want to know that they're making an impact.

Related: 5 Things You Can Do to Avoid 'Fake Work'

But is "meaning" a workplace necessity? Shouldn't employees show up to work each day engaged and ready to go simply because the employer is paying them?

The answer to that question may be "no." While, at first glance, "meaningful work" sounds like just another fluffy, feel-good ideal, it turns out that employees want and need more than a paycheck to stay engaged at work.

Consider the evidence: An alarming 57 percent of North American employees surveyed by Achievers in 2015 actually said they weren't motivated by their company's mission. And, not surprisingly, 50 percent said they didn't expect to be with their employers a year later -- which may indicate that for employees a sense of purpose is critical.

Indeed, meaningful work seems to have a real and recognizable impact on employees and the organization as a whole. Here's what happens when employees work with purpose:

Intrinsic motivation increases.

Employees are motivated by rewards and recognition. But these are extrinsic motivators and go only so far; eventually, they lose their appeal. The key to lasting motivation goes deeper -- it's intrinsic. And purpose fuels intrinsic motivation.

Consider the results of a study published in the Global Business Review in April, which looked at 480 IT professionals across India and found that transformational leadership, combined with meaningful work, improved commitment to the organization and employee performance.

In other words, when leaders listen to employees and explain the purpose behind a task, the latter are more interested and more motivated to do well. Meaningful work is the spark that ignites intrinsic motivation -- it's what leads employees to work hard because they want to, not because they have to.

Related: Menial Tasks Eat Up the Majority of the Workday for Most Employees

Purpose attracts more job-seekers.

Recruiting top talent is getting more and more competitive. In fact, 56 percent of recruiters surveyed by Jobvite in 2015 said they couldn't find the skilled talent they needed, and 95 percent expected this problem to remain or become even more competitive in the future.

On the other side of the aisle, while more employees are on the search for new opportunities, they're more picky about whom they work for. They don't just want a job -- they want meaningful work.

In a study of 7,700 millennials from 29 countries around the world, conducted by Deloitte, 56 percent of those surveyed said they had ruled out working for an organization because of its values. What's more, 70 percent said they believed their personal values were shared by the organizations they work for.

Professionals choose employers with similar values -- they choose work with a purpose. After all, a survey of job seekers spanning multiple generations published by Millennial Branding in May 2014 found meaningful work to be one of the most important characteristics of an employer during the job search.

Purpose and values set employers apart from their competitors in the job market. When employers can show job-seekers that their work is meaningful in multiple ways, they attract more candidates and fill positions faster.

Employees will stick around.

Job-hopping is an increasingly popular trend, and an expensive one, at that. According to a report published by Gallup in May, turnover from millennials alone costs the U.S. economy $30.5 billion annually. Not to mention the headaches employers experience.

Why are employees leaving? They're on the search for work that satisfies them, gives them more drive and challenges them. In the Gallup study, 71 percent of millennial respondents who strongly agreed that they knew what their organization stood for and what made it different from its competitors, said they planned to be with their company for at least one year.

In addition, among those in the DeLoitte survey who said they would stay with their employer for more than five years, 88 percent said they felt a sense of purpose.

Related: What Companies Can Expect When They Hire Gen Z

In sum: Employees want to know their work means something, and if they don't, they'll look for purpose elsewhere. But meaningful work breeds loyalty. When employees feel a sense of purpose, they're happier, love their jobs and want to stick around.

Matt Straz

Founder and CEO of Namely

Matt Straz is the founder and CEO of Namely, the HR and payroll platform for the world's most exciting companies.

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