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Finding Fulfillment: When work empowers employees’ personal goals, productivity and retention are just two of the rewards.
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PERSPECTIVE

 

In all our research this year, more than anything else we measured, personal fulfillment had the most decisive impact on an employee’s choice to stay in their job, do great work, and define their organization as a great place to work. To understand fulfillment, the most useful tool may be a basic mirror. Don’t each of us want to feel valued, have a purpose, do meaningful work, master new skills, balance our lives, and belong to our workplace community? The data certainly agree. And are we not more fulfilled when our organization’s culture and employee experiences facilitate those needs? Rhetorical questions aside, cultures that focus on fulfillment invariably see retention, engagement, and great work rise.

A graphic showing that highly fulfilled employees plan to stay 3 years longer at their organizations
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INTRODUCTION

 

Organizations have struggled to keep and attract workers during the Great Resignation, in part because salary increases and enhanced benefits have lost the power to entice workers the way they once did. The pandemic gave many people the time, space, and perspective to re-evaluate their careers, and they’re now seeking more than the usual perks to do their jobs. For them, the exchange with their employer feels empty. They want greater meaning from their work. They’re looking for fulfillment.

According to McKinsey & Company, the pandemic has led two thirds of employees to reflect on their purpose in life and re-examine the work they do.1 PwC found that fulfillment at work is just as important as higher pay when people considered a job change. In fact, 83% of employees said “finding meaning in day-to-day work” was a top priority for them,2 and 69% of employees would change employers for better job fulfillment.3 One out of three employees would even take a job with lower pay if it was more fulfilling.4

Let’s take a moment to clearly define fulfillment. For the purposes of this report, it’s a feeling of contentment or completeness that comes from the accomplishment of our most important goals or the attainment of our highest personal aspirations. Fulfillment occurs when we identify strongly with a purpose and connect to others in meaningful ways.

So why aren’t employees fulfilled in their current jobs? Three big reasons: Not enough challenge or growth, not feeling appreciated or connected, and a lack of ownership or impact. A deficiency in any of these can prevent people from experiencing fulfillment at work.

In our 2022 Global Culture Report, we learned how autonomy, mastery, and connection are vital to creating peak employee experiences. When organizations meet these three psychological needs, employees feel an increased sense of ownership, belonging, and usefulness, which leads to higher levels of engagement and great work. Conversely, when these three needs go unmet, feelings of conflict, isolation, and failure all increase.

This year, our research uncovers just how important it is for people to experience autonomy, mastery, and connection in order to be fulfilled at work—and how organizations can actively meet these psychological needs for employees. Autonomy is more than getting to choose which days each week to come into the office. Mastery goes beyond moving up a career ladder of promotions. And connection requires deeper communication than talking to your team on Zoom. To help employees find fulfillment in their work, organizations need to consider employees more holistically. They need to embrace employees’ passions inside and outside the workplace, create environments where employees can be their whole selves, and enable them to succeed in all aspects of their lives.
 

“When pursuing an employee experience that engages workers, companies too often make the mistake of looking at only one-size-fits-all solutions. They vow to provide more flexibility, opportunities, and an inclusive culture. While these factors matter, they don’t cover what is often the most important one that’s missing: a personal sense of fulfillment.”
—Aaron Hurst, Author, and Kathrin Belliveau, Chief Purpose Officer, Hasbro


FULFILLMENT LEADS TO HIGHER RETENTION

 

Bad news first: Nearly one third of employees are unfulfilled in their jobs. And unfulfilled employees are less likely to promote their organizations or help their organizations succeed, and more likely to leave.

A table showing that lack of fulfillment significantly affects employee behaviors and perceptions
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The remaining two thirds of employees do find some fulfillment at work, and nearly half of them report their jobs give them a high sense of fulfillment. This translates into better odds for above-average job satisfaction (+526%), promoting the organization to others (+297%), high satisfaction with the employee experience (+578%), and wanting to stay with the organization for another year (+90%). Meanwhile, the odds of burnout significantly decrease (–66%).

Highly fulfilled employees also plan to stay at their organizations three years longer than unfulfilled employees.
 

THE FOUR FACTORS OF FULFILLMENT

 

Our research identifies four main levers that influence employee fulfillment:

  1. Balance. How we actually spend our time compared to how we want to spend our time, and the impact of those activities on other aspects of our lives. It requires having the time and autonomy to accomplish the things at work and in our personal lives that matter most to us.
  2. Community, connection, and belonging. How we interact with the individuals and groups around us. A feeling of acceptance.
  3. Growth. A progression, enhancement, increase, or improvement in one or more areas of our life. The sense of mastery, developing and applying skills to contribute to a project or goal.
  4. Purpose. The reason for the actions we do and choices we make. The importance of our activities and why they matter.

It’s important to note that all these levers incorporate and build on the psychological needs of autonomy, mastery, and connection (detailed in last year’s report) that create peak experiences. Those peak experiences dramatically improve feelings of overall fulfillment in the context of our everyday employee experiences.

A graphic showing the four factors of fulfillment
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Figure 5. EMPLOYEE FULFILLMENT
The four factors of fulfillment incorporate and build upon the the three inherent psychological needs
of autonomy, mastery, and connection that result in meaningful and memorable peak experiences.

A chart showing that peak and valley experiences have a dramatic effect on employee fulfillment in positive and negative ways
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Figure 6. EMPLOYEE EXPERIENCES IMPACT FULFILLMENT
Peak and valley experiences have a dramatic effect on employee fulfillment in positive or negative ways.

A table showing that when employees reach a high level in certain areas, the odds of fulfillment are far better
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Yet success in these four areas is a struggle. Less than one third of employees feel they have a firm grip on any them. To help employees find fulfillment, organizations need to rethink how they support their people in each area.

For example, balance is not simply dividing time equally between work and personal activities. It’s often a sliding scale that changes based on the needs of the employee, sometimes daily. When organizations create a culture where employees feel supported and empowered to balance their work and personal needs because they have some control and autonomy over their time at work, they’re more likely to feel a greater sense of fulfillment in their jobs.

Similarly, to build a sense of connection and belonging at work, leaders must go beyond typical teambuilding activities to nurture a sense of inclusion and create a strong, supportive community within the organization’s larger culture—connecting employees regularly to purpose, accomplishment, and one another.

Organizations should also provide paths for employees to grow, even if pay increases and promotions are unavailable. Mentorship, tuition reimbursement, and special project assignments can all help employees master skills and feel that they’re making progress.

And finally, people can greatly expand the meaning they take from their work by connecting to the organization’s purpose. This requires leaders who consistently communicate it and help employees see how their work makes it possible.

A graphic showing that when employees rate four areas high, there is a 21x increase in the likelihood of fulfillment
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One final insight that underscores the importance of employee recognition: The feeling of appreciation is a fundamental need that enhances all four fulfillment factors.

A table showing the increased likelihood of high fulfillment when integrated recognition is added
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“What is the recipe for successful achievement? To my mind there are just four essential ingredients: Choose a career you love, give it the best there is in you, seize your opportunities, and be a member of the team.”
—Benjamin F. Fairless, President, Chairman & Chief Executive Officer, U.S. Steel


RECOMMENDATIONS

 

Improving the areas of balance, community, growth, and purpose will give employees a greater sense of fulfillment.

 

1. Support and encourage balance


For employees to find balance in their lives, leaders and the organization must give people a say in how they work, as well as what work they do.

Establish policies, practices, and expectations that support balance. Ensure employees have opportunities to take time away from work without feeling any pressure, guilt, or obligation to work during their time off. If possible, provide flexibility in where and when employees do their work. Ensure senior leaders communicate the importance of balance and make it a normal, natural part of the culture.

 

A table showing a substantial difference in the odds of outcomes occurring when balance is excellent versus poor
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CASE STUDY—BETTER LIVING THROUGH FLEXIBILITY

 

Dow, the materials science company, knows that where work gets done is secondary to how work gets done. And it gives its people a lot of autonomy.

Through the “Design Your Day” program, employees can co-create their ideal work schedule with leaders according to their roles, responsibilities, and personal preferences. Dow aligns such programs with its DEI efforts to ensure employees feel valued, not just for the work they do, but for who they are. This includes giving more flexibility to employees in all types of life stages and circumstances, including those raising small children. Alexander Doll, Director of Public Affairs Sustainability in Dubai, says, “Our global focus on ‘bringing your full self to work’ and ‘design your day’ is not just a tick-the-box corporate program. It’s a genuine effort to make our lives easier.” 5


2. Strengthen community, connection, and belonging


Build a strong sense of community at work and provide ways for employees to connect with each other and with their leaders in meaningful ways.

A good place to start is networking and socialization opportunities during work hours. Highlight a sense of community through shared values, goals, and purpose. Train leaders to get to know employees individually and show appreciation for their unique contributions.

Then go beyond work-related matters. Learn people’s interests and passions outside of work. Give them opportunities and time to pursue these interests, both individually and with others in the organization who share the same passions. Enable them to develop their personal lives and find balance. This encourages employees to bring their whole selves to work because they’re treated as more than cogs in the machine. Employees will feel a sense of belonging and connection for who they are, not just the work they perform.

 

A table showing that when feelings of community, connection, and belonging are strong at an organization, the odds that employees will do great work, take pride in the organization, and want to stay are far better
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CASE STUDY—RISING ABOVE THE CRISIS

 

American Airlines is in the business of connecting people. But even as planes sat grounded and people stopped traveling during the pandemic, the company still kept their employees connected, whether they worked at the airport or at home.

American aligned every employee back to its purpose: Caring for people on life’s journey. (Even if that journey is during a crisis.) It also used recognition to help employees continue to feel part of the American Airlines family. Even furloughed employees retained access to their recognition tools and learning programs.

Leadership at American communicated frequently and transparently, encouraging everyone who kept their airline going. These efforts to build meaningful connection with each other helped employees feel appreciated, valued, and ultimately more fulfilled. According to Beril McManus, Senior Manager, Recognition, Events, and Engagement, “It’s a family here at American. You have each other’s back, you’re taking care of each other, you’re helping people in the good times and the bad.”6


3. Offer opportunities for growth and development


Growth is not limited to pay increases and promotions. It’s critical for leaders to open avenues for skill development, networking with peers and leaders, and consistent opportunities for coaching and mentorship. A few suggestions:

  • Create or improve ways for employees to upskill or reskill
  • Invite employees to work on special projects
  • Provide resources and training for employees to accomplish personal and professional goals
  • Recognize employees when they accomplish their goals
  • Help employees master their jobs and feel like experts

 

A table showing that when companies foster growth well, the odds of several positive outcomes increase and burnout decreases
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4. Provide purpose and meaning


Your organization may have a clear purpose, but do your employees know it? And do they identify with it?

If necessary, refine your purpose and communicate it often. Connect employee and business goals to it, and use public and private recognition to showcase how employees contribute to it.

Equally important, encourage leaders to learn what employees need to extract meaning from their jobs. Help employees define and accomplish goals that are personally meaningful to them.

 

A table showing that when an employee’s sense of purpose is high, they’re more positive about their jobs and the organization
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“Purpose is built, not found. Working with a sense of purpose day-in and day-out takes thoughtfulness and practice.”
—Shannon Schuyler, Chief Purpose Officer, PwC
 

CASE STUDY—A PRESCRIPTON FOR FULFILLMENT

 

NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital improves both the lives of its patients and its employees through a culture of respect and the purpose of providing high-quality healthcare.

It connects its people to the culture and purpose through employee recognition, and its recognition program, “Everyday Amazing,” celebrates all the amazing work employees at NYP do. The program includes appreciation stations that hold notecards and treats, and a mobile app that makes it easy to appreciate each other and remember to create powerful moments of respect and care for patients and families. NYP’s purpose and culture has helped make it one of the top hospitals in the country.

“Healthcare is a very rewarding business, but fundamentally it’s a tough business,” says Dr. Laura Forese, Chief Operating Officer and Executive Vice President at NYP. “We can see tremendous amounts of burnout. One of the things that we know will really combat that is when people feel appreciated.” Appreciation and connection to purpose help build fulfillment for NYP employees.7


FINDING FULFILLMENT—KEY TAKEAWAYS


Employees are looking for more fulfillment in their lives, especially their jobs.

 

More than satisfaction or engagement, fulfillment is finding meaning in one’s work.

 

Fulfillment leads to higher employee satisfaction, great work, and retention.

 

Balance, community, growth, and purpose all contribute to fulfillment.


Finding Fulfillment Sources

  1. “Help Your Employees Find Purpose—Or Watch Them Leave,” Naina Dhingra, Andrew Samo, Bill Schaninger, and Matt Schrimper, McKinsey & Company, April 5, 2021.
  2. “Four Ways to Help Your Employees Feel More Fulfilled (and Why You Need To),” Kathy Caprino, Forbes, December 10, 2018.
  3. “The Great Resignation Looks Set to Continue—1 in 5 Say They’ll Change Jobs in the Next Year,” Goh Chiew Tong, CNBC, May 24, 2022.
  4. “Four Ways to Help Your Employees Feel More Fulfilled (and Why You Need To),” Kathy Caprino, Forbes, December 10, 2018.
  5. “Fulfilling the Psychological Needs of Employees in the New Era of Flexible Work,” O.C. Tanner webinar, March 16, 2022.
  6. LinkedIn Live: How Recognition Lifted American Airlines During Crisis, June 1, 2022, O.C. Tanner Institute.
  7. O.C. Tanner Client Story

METHODOLOGY

The O.C. Tanner Institute uses multiple research methods to support the Global Culture Report, including interviews, focus groups, cross-sectional surveys, and a longitudinal survey.

Qualitative findings came from 10 focus groups and 81 interviews among employees and leaders of larger organizations. The groups and interviews were held throughout 2021 and 2022, each representing various types of employers, including both private and public entities.

Quantitative findings came from online survey interviews administered to employees across Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The total sample size was 36,441 workers at companies with 500+ employees. The O.C. Tanner Institute collected and analyzed all survey data. This sample is sufficient to generate meaningful conclusions about the cultures of organizations in the included countries. However, because the study does not include population data, results are subject to statistical errors customarily associated with sample-based information.

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from the O.C. Tanner Institute.

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