‘Delivering happiness’ is no longer enough when it comes to your employees
During my gap year, I took an internship in corporate finance at one of the biggest French companies. I didn’t care much about the work we were doing there, but I was content to work with great people, I had a decent paycheck, and plenty of time to enjoy Paris with my friends after work. I was happy, but I had no drive to do my best work, let alone stay with the company for the long haul.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, in early 2017, my co-founder was diagnosed with cancer. Where we previously shared the responsibility of Front’s future, I now needed to fill his shoes, be a strong leader for the team, and make Front successful — if not for myself and the team, then for him. I was more driven than ever, and I understood how critical my work was to the company’s future. I was extremely anxious, working an unhealthy amount of hours to balance his absence, and definitely not happy. My work had more meaning than ever before, but I wasn’t in the right state of mind to truly deliver the great work I was driven to do.
I’d be hard pressed to say which of these two moments I prefer. Other than wishing my co-founder didn’t have to fight cancer, I don’t regret at all going through the hard times of 2017, but the pain wasn’t sustainable and I was looking forward to more peaceful times. I guess I want to be happy yet live a meaningful life, and I think I’m not an isolated case.
I see two things happening at once, and I believe they’re related.
- First, highly-educated, upper-middle class young professionals are working more hours than before. This is significant, since historically, those who could afford to work less would not pass on the opportunity.
- At the same time, these same professionals are desperately searching for their identity and life’s purpose. Increasingly, for better or worse, they are hoping to find themselves in their work.
Whether it is a feeling of being stuck in a “bullshit job”, the appeal of Effective Altruism, the popularity of podcasts like 80,000 hours, or the rates at which people quit to join non-profits or flat-out stop working, one thing is clear: many employees today aren’t content with a 9-to-5 job that earns a good living. They want more. They want to do something meaningful. And more often than not, this drives them to work themselves to anxiety and burnout.
When did this happen? My parents, aunts, uncles weren’t obsessed with finding meaning in their work. A fascinating hypothesis is that this is the next phase of a long trend that went from workers asking for jobs in agrarian and early manufacturing economies, to baby boomers striving to build careers that would culminate with them being appointed VP, SVP or CEO of a big company, to the current workforce aching for a calling, a vocation, work that would finally be meaningful and fulfilling.
At face value, this shouldn’t be problematic. We are wired to search for meaning in our lives, and yet many of the traditional outlets for finding that meaning are declining. For Millennials and even Gen Xers, the most common religion is no religion at all. People are waiting longer to start families. When we aren’t finding meaning from personal sources, the pressure to align the biggest part of our days (our work) with our life aspirations (its meaning) increases. In a sense, the belief that work is central to one’s identity and life purpose has emerged as a new religion of its own. What’s unclear though, is whether growth-seeking, profit-driven companies are even equipped to provide their employees with meaningful work.
Are companies up for the task? The case of happiness vs. meaning
A short definition of happiness is the state in which someone’s current needs and desires are met. In other words, if you’re in no pain right now, you’re happy. While happiness is concerned with the present, meaning is a way to connect it to the future. Something is meaningful if, were it not for its existence, things would be worse. Meaning requires motivation, the belief that the status quo is imperfect and should be improved, and that it’s worth suffering today if it justifies making tomorrow better.
Therefore it might look like happiness and meaning are mutually exclusive: you need to be at least slightly uncomfortable with the current state of things to find the motivation to do something about it, which in turn makes the whole process meaningful to you. So are these really the only two options available? To either have a job with decent pay and good work-life balance, yet is unfulfilling; or to find meaningful work at the expense of your happiness?
I want to believe that companies can rise to the challenge and deliver both happiness and meaning — although I suspect that in many cases, it’ll be an “either/or” situation. As an individual, that’s what I want for myself, and as a CEO, that’s what I want my company to offer. There is so much upside if we can crack this nut. Of course there’s employee engagement, increased productivity and even profitability. I see this at Front where employees credit their high engagement with caring about our mission and understanding how their work impacts that mission. It certainly wouldn’t hurt if millions of people could live fulfilled lives in the process.
I want to spend a good amount of time this year understanding how companies can provide meaning and happiness to their employees. Those that don’t will lose every single employee they would otherwise want to retain, while those that do will be able to harness the drive of people who truly believe that their work matters. Follow me on my quest.