How much of your lifetime earnings would you sacrifice to work a job you find always meaningful? The answer is 23 percent, assuming you're like the 2,000 workers who were surveyed in a recent report from Harvard Business Review.

It's a steep number, no doubt, but it's not exactly surprising in light of data showing how American workers have, over the past decade, been increasingly expressing a desire for more meaningful work. The new report, authored by Shawn Achor, Andrew Reece, Gabriella Rosen Kellerman and Alexi Robichaux, builds upon past research on workplace attitudes in an attempt to quantify the changing ways in which Americans prioritize meaning in their careers.

Surveying 2,285 American professionals across 26 industries and a variety of pay levels, the report showed:

  • More than 9 out of 10 employees were willing to trade a percentage of their lifetime earnings for greater meaning at work.
  • Only 1 in 20 respondents said their job provided the most meaningful work they could imagine having.
  • On average, the respondents said their jobs were about half as meaningful as they could be.
  • People in service-oriented professions, such as medicine, education and social work, reported higher levels of workplace meaning than did administrative support and transportation workers.
Occupational differences in meaning and job satisfaction
Image: Better Up

The employer's perspective

The authors of the new report suggest that employers who provide meaningful jobs to employees will see bottom-line benefits.

"...employees who find work meaningful experience significantly greater job satisfaction, which is known to correlate with increased productivity," they wrote. "Based on established job satisfaction-to-productivity ratios, we estimate that highly meaningful work will generate an additional $9,078 per worker, per year."

The report also showed that employees who work meaningful jobs also seem to work harder and stay with organizations longer:

  • Employees with "highly meaningful" jobs were 69% less likely to plan on quitting their jobs within the next 6 months, and also had longer job tenures.
  • Employees with very meaningful work spend one additional hour per week working, and take two fewer days of paid leave per year.

The authors suggested that employers can cultivate more meaning by strengthening social networks in the workplace, making every worker a knowledge worker, and connecting workers who find their jobs meaningful to other employees.

"Meaningful work only has upsides," the authors wrote. "Employees work harder and quit less, and they gravitate to supportive work cultures that help them grow. The value of meaning to both individual employees, and to organizations, stands waiting, ready to be captured by organizations prepared to act."