The Meaning of Work

As we continue to explore the workplace dynamics our clients are navigating, we’re learning more and more about what’s most important to people when it comes to their work.

We don’t mean the issues that typically preoccupy people responsible for HR – like how people get paid or how to conduct effective performance reviews or how teams can best collaborate. We’re talking about the core human needs that work appears to satisfy, like the need for purpose and belonging.

If you have a superficial conversation with many people about why they work, they’ll say they work so they can pay the rent and buy groceries. But what about the 52% of Canadians who say they are highly satisfied with their jobs? * There’s much to suggest that work satisfies important psychological needs, over and above the economic imperatives it fulfills.


Beyond money

Conversations about the non-monetary side of work have become more prevalent in recent years. One wave of discussions has occurred very recently, as rapid advances in AI have pointed to the potential for this transformational technology to eliminate swaths of employment categories while also generating enough wealth to potentially support some kind of guaranteed income. (The latter is an idea that has been around since long before this specific tech revolution). Some have mused about what a world without work might look and feel like.

Even before AI, the internet was shaking up conventional ideas of labour and value. The web created a platform for people to share what Clay Shirky called their Cognitive Surplus: from fan fiction to cat videos to handy bits of code, millions of people embraced opportunities to share their labour – to show off their skills, help others, or both.

And of course, people were choosing to work for free long before the internet: volunteering locally to help out and seek meaning in their own lives. Millions of people still put in serious hours to accomplish something important to them and to society, whether it’s helping the sick and those in need, protecting the environment or animating local sport or theatre programs.

Some labours of love do involve a commercial exchange. All sorts of people have skills and experience that allow them to provide goods and services for other who are grateful to be customers because they see the exchange as more than a transaction. Think of artisanal butchers and florists, self-employed plumbers and contractors serving long-term clients, dog walkers, physiotherapists who help clients reduce pain and regain function, music teachers who share their passion with students… the list goes on.

Of course, there are workers who do not enjoy their jobs. But the real source of this dissatisfaction is often organizational pressures or dynamics unrelated to the work itself. In some cases, jobs have been fragmented in a way that leaves the worker feeling no engagement and no sense of actually accomplishing anything.


What makes a job more than a paycheque?

What is it about a good job that feeds our human needs and makes us genuinely, intrinsically motivated? Our research suggests that a fulfilling job appears to provide two key benefits: purpose and community.



Jobs provide purpose when the worker feels they’re contributing to something they believe in, and where they feel that they have the knowledge, skill and determination to make a difference. It might not be easy, but it’s worthwhile and they’re the right person to get it done.



Jobs provide community when workers feel surrounded by people with whom they share something important, such as interests, expertise, knowledge and purpose.

It’s the second element – community – that’s taken the biggest hit over the last few years as remote work has become more prevalent. Digital encounters tend to fall short. This is why much of the time spent in the office and in hybrid environments is social time. The importance of the social aspect of work is driven home by past research that found having a good friend at work was one of the most important predictors of a worker’s tenure with an organization.


Passion & Pay

In the early days at Environics, when telephone interviewing was common, our phone rooms employed a lot of actors. They were extremely good at reading our complicated public affairs survey questions in a way that ensured the respondent understood its meaning. While we’d like to think Environics was a good employer, the phone room wasn’t a dream job for people who wanted to be on the stage; it was a steady paycheque that tided them over until the next acting gig came along, which would usually provide community and (artistic) purpose in abundance, and fulfill their need to perform. The two jobs in combination worked pretty well for many people, and some stayed with us for quite a while – perhaps because the phone room did provide some community, if only because other interviewers were often fellow writers or actors.

Variations on this model have become even more prevalent as the internet has given rise to the gig economy. While some critics understandably bemoan the loss of more stable and secure jobs, it’s true that many people do genuinely choose a mix of employment that lets them pay the bills while pursuing a less remunerative but often more fun and creative passion.

The question of how to spend one’s time – balancing personal interests, financial need, rest, status, learning, social contact and other goals – has been around forever. But as the workplace changes, understanding the interplay between financial reward and personal fulfillment takes on a new significance for employers and employees alike. Other factors, like creativity, mental health, autonomy, and purpose are increasingly part of the conversation.


What about you?

Do you love your job? Is there a job from your past that you found fulfilling but left anyway? What would be the perfect job that you are still in search of?


* 2022 and 2023 Environics Research Canadian Social Values Surveys

Find out how our Workplace Culture team can help your organization

Related insights


366 Adelaide Street West
Suite 101, Toronto, ON
Canada M5V 1R9
416 920 9010


116 Albert St
Suite 300, Ottawa, ON
Canada K1P 5G3
613 230 5089


421 7th Ave SW
Suite 3000, Calgary, AB
Canada T2P 4K9
403 613 5735

Share This