More and more, employees are prioritizing a meaningful, fulfilling workplace. While workers know fulfillment is a personal experience, they also acknowledge senior leadership’s role in setting a culture that nurtures or stifles a sense of purpose. Last week, in the kick-off article to this series, I suggested senior leadership aim for more than just token programs and overlays to the current culture. The goal should be holistic systems that maximize invitations for employee participation, stimulating innovation and ownership throughout the organization.
What are we really talking about here?
Before we plow ahead into solutions, I wanted some way to ground this heady talk in some numbers. How do real people, living in the real world, experience fulfillment? How do they think about the role of work in that experience? Even if you’re a research psychologist (I’m not), these questions don’t lend themselves to easy objective measures. We determine our own personal standards for satisfaction in life, and we don’t always set those standards consciously or deliberately. Researchers still have yet to determine whether we’re fulfilled by a greater depth and variety of sources–such as family, friends, and work–or if an overall feeling of satisfaction with life makes us feel more gratitude toward those things. We know the sensation of fulfillment is caused by the release of oxytocin and dopamine in the brain, but sources of more immediate gratification can have a similar effect. With all of these questions, there’s only one thing to do: ask people about their experience.
After spoiling a couple of good dinner party conversations, I decided a survey might be better suited to the task. It hinged on two essential questions:
Overall, how fulfilled do you feel in your life? (Scale of 1-10)
How much of your overall fulfillment is derived from your paying job(s)?
In between, I provided a list of sources of fulfillment (friendships, family, work, volunteer service, etc.) and asked participants to check off everything that added to their sense of fulfillment. This was meant to prime participants to think about holistic fulfillment before answering the question about work, but provided some interesting data points in its own right. I ended with a series of demographic questions: age bracket, job level, income level, etc.
It’s important to note that the purpose of this survey was never to unlock the universal human experience of fulfillment at work, or in any way “contribute to the literature.” With 124 responses mostly pulled from my network, this is not a broadly representative sample*.
The most common trait among these respondents was that they were employed by traditional corporations. 80% were employed full-time, split evenly between for-profit and nonprofit firms. Most respondents were between 25 and 54 years old, and the group as a whole skewed slightly female. As for education level, 52% had a bachelor’s degree, while 39% had earned a masters or doctorate. The items with the most even distribution amongst the group were job seniority (entry level, intermediate, management, etc.) and income.
Let’s start with the bad news: the survey didn’t reveal any fulfillment silver bullet. Age, job level, income–none of them correlated positively or negatively with a sense of fulfillment for a given person. The only positive correlation to work fulfillment was a self-report of higher overall fulfillment, though even that correlation was fairly weak.
The good news: there were some interesting nonlinear observations in the aggregate.
- Work-life integration is a real thing. Family, friends, hobbies and volunteerism don’t squeeze out room for meaning in work. Both overall and work fulfillment increased with reports of greater variety in sources of fulfillment.
- Can’t buy me love. Can buy me fulfillment… to a point. I know, above I just said income wasn’t strongly correlated with work fulfillment. That’s true, and there are some interesting things happening at the top and bottom of the income spectrum that can’t be explained away by outliers. That said, Maslow was onto something. Pay your people.
- Mid-lifers in crisis? I don’t know if it’s burnout, parenthood, or the news cycle, but 35-44 year-olds are struggling. They reported the fewest fulfillment sources of any age bracket, and had the lowest combo of work-life fulfillment.
- Was that Master’s degree worth it? Survey says: nope.
- Ch-ch-ch-ch changes. While there’s plenty we can do to make work more meaningful, clearly we are all whole human beings who have many centers of fulfillment. If you’re looking to create a workplace that supports whole humans, the programs you prioritize may differ depending on your demographic.
Conclusion: Work is number three!
Here’s one more parting stat: ‘work’ was the third most cited source of fulfillment across all options, just behind ‘friendships’ and ‘romantic relationships’. The average person will spend some 90,000 waking hours at work over the course of their lifetime. As leaders, we need strategies and systems to make those hours count for the mission and the people making it happen.
In the meantime, take a minute to share your experience by taking part in the second edition of the (very short) Fulfillment at Work Survey. Click here to fill it out.
*It’s important to acknowledge that many groups are underrepresented or not represented at all in this informal survey. A group’s absence from this article in no way diminishes their right to fulfilling work. Case in point, only four respondents described their current employment status as “Multiple part-time jobs making full-time employment.” In the age of the gig economy, this is a demographic that may offer a unique perspective on the meaning of fulfilling work, and may have very different needs than employees at traditional firms.