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'Meaningful Work' Often More Important Than Pay, Study Suggests

Finding Happiness at Work
Credit: ChaayTee/Shutterstock

A recent study into what makes workers happy reveals how compensation, perks and gender play a role in how people feel about their employers. Commissioned by the folks behind Wrike, a collaborative work management (CWM) platform, the study sought to determine whether the lavish accoutrements of modern companies are enough to keep people engaged.

Looking at data collected by Atomik Research, the study stems from an online survey of adults working full time in companies with more than 200 employees. The Silicon Valley-based company's search included workers from the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany. At least 1,000 people from each country responded to the online survey between Nov. 13 and Nov. 18, 2018. Among respondents, there was a near even split between male and female participants.

When it comes to the top factors that make employees happiest, pay ranked the highest. Compensation was followed by flexible hours and the chance to work remotely, meaningful work, good management or leadership, a company's culture or reputation, and the office's location.

Since compensation ranked as the highest factor of happiness for employees, representatives said the survey could have easily suggested that "the highest-paid employees are the happiest." What they found, however, was that other aspects of the survey "indicate [compensation's importance] may not always be the case, and a gap may exist" between expectation and actual things that spark joy.

When scrutinizing what makes happy workers happy and what could make unhappy workers happier, the former group reported that they were "mostly happy" or "elated" when doing meaningful work. The latter group still rank compensation as the top factor.

Among women and men, compensation still ranks high among happiness factors, though women ranked it higher than men. Since women earn less, on average, than their male counterparts, Wrike suggested the survey could be reflecting on that.

Another major difference between men and women is how important management was as a factor in workplace happiness. Men ranked it as their most important aspect, while women saw it as their second to last.

Both groups agreed that office location was the least important factor for their happiness. With flexible hours and the ability to work remotely landing in the top three for both genders, the disinterest of where their office was located reflects that, according to Wrike.

Compensation may play a major role in workers' happiness, but Wrike said their survey found 58 percent of respondents said they took a pay cut to improve their happiness.

Of those individuals who said they accepted less pay for more happiness, 63 percent said they were "mostly happy" or "elated" with their current employment. Conversely, those who reported being "mostly unhappy" or "miserable" answered that they'd never taken a pay cut for a more agreeable job.

"We acknowledge that this is not simply a matter of values or willpower," stated the survey's results. "It's likely that many are stuck in unhappy careers because they are dependent upon higher-earning-potential jobs that do not bring them happiness."

The study also found that 72 percent of men had agreed to lower compensation in order to take a role that made them happier. Only 44 percent of women did the same. Again, Wrike believes the study's results reflect the gender wage gap.

Along with salary and benefits, companies regularly employ unique perks to get workers in the door and retain them. Finding which perks matter to men and women was also a focus of the study. It found that men were more likely to be satisfied with free lunches and snacks, team-building exercises, happy hours and onsite gyms than their female counterparts.

Just 15 percent of men said they'd rather forego the perks for more money, though 34 percent of women felt the same way. Women were more likely to value additional or unlimited paid time off (34 percent) than men (23 percent).

When it comes to bonuses for a job well done, the survey also found women were 94 percent more likely to want a gift card than men. A celebratory happy hour or free company goodies were valued four times more by men.

The survey once again pointed to the gender wage gap for its findings, mentioning that women generally felt they needed "additional cash to make ends meet than men, who have more wiggle room in their budgets."

Since Wrike is a CWM company, the survey also examined companies that utilize CWM software versus those that don't. Unsurprisingly, they found that when a company uses CWM software, it has an impact on the company culture.

According to the survey, employees at companies that use CWM software value management and leadership most of all, with compensation and flexible hours coming in at second and third. Employees at non-CWM companies valued compensation the most, with meaningful work and flexible hours in second and third place.

CWM users rated meaningful work as the least important factor for their happiness. According to the survey, that's because "CWM puts impact and connection to work's purpose front and center."

The survey also found that CWM software users were more likely to want more perks than those that don't. Approximately 35 percent of non-CWM respondents wanted more or unlimited paid time off; 41 percent of that same group didn't care about perks at all and wanted more money.

Conversely, CWM software users were "85 percent more likely to say a free lunch is the most important perk and 1.5 times more likely to say team events, like happy hours, are most important."

Andrew Martins

Andrew Martins is an award-winning journalist with a BA in journalism from Ramapo College of New Jersey. Before joining Business.com and Business News Daily, he wrote for a regional publication and served as the managing editor for six weekly papers that spanned four counties. He is a New Jersey native and a first-generation Portuguese-American, and he has a penchant for the nerdy.