Co-authored by Christine Porath, associate professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business
What stands in the way of our being more satisfied and productive at work? That's the fundamental question we sought to answer in a survey we conducted with HBR last fall. More than 19,000 people, at all levels in companies, across a broad range of industries, have so far responded to the questions we posed.
What we discovered is that people feel better and perform better and more sustainably when four basic needs are met: renewal (physical); value (emotional), focus (mental) and purpose (spiritual). This isn't surprising news, of course. Is there any doubt that when we feel more energized, appreciated, focused and purposeful, we perform better? Think about it: The opportunity and encouragement to intermittently rest and renew our energy during the work day serves as an antidote to the increasing overload so many of us feel in a world of relentlessly rising demand. Feeling valued creates a deeper level of trust and security at work, which frees us to spend less energy seeking and defending our value, and more energy creating it. In a world in which our attention is increasingly under siege, better focus makes it possible get more work done, in less time, at a higher level of quality. And finally, a higher purpose -- the sense that what we do matters and serves something larger than our immediate self-interest -- is a uniquely powerful source of motivation.
What's surprising about our survey's results is how dramatically and positively getting these needs met is correlated with every variable that influences performance. It would be statistically significant if meeting a given need correlated with a rise of even one or two percentage points in a performance variable such as engagement, or retention. Instead, we found that meeting even one of the four core needs had a dramatic impact on every performance variable we studied.
For example, when employees at a company perceive that any one of their four needs has been met, they report a 30 percent higher capacity to focus, a nearly 50 percent higher level of engagement, and a 63 percent greater likelihood to stay at the company. Even more interestingly, there is a straight dose effect associated with meeting an employee's core needs -- meaning that the cumulative positive impact rises with each additional need that gets satisfied. For example, when all four needs are met, the effect on engagement rises from 50 percent for one need, to 125 percent. Engagement, in turn, has been positively correlated with profitability. In a meta-analysis of 263 research studies across 192 companies, employers with the most engaged employees were 22 percent more profitable than those with the least engaged employees.
Interestingly, meeting three needs seems to have nearly as great an impact as meeting all four on most performance variables. The exception is people's reported stress levels, where meeting a single need prompts only a modest 6 percent reduction in people's stress, but meeting three reduces stress by 30 percent, and meeting all four leads to a 72 percent drop, The message to employers is blindingly obvious. None of us can live by bread alone. We perform better when the full range of our needs are taken into account. Rather than trying to forever get more out of their people, companies are far better served by systematically investing in meeting as many of their employees' core needs as possible, so they're freed and fueled to bring the best of themselves to work.
In practical terms, it's possible to start making a considerable improvement without a lot of effort or expense, addressing one core need at a time. Consider the most basic performance variable, renewal, and its effect on people's capacity. Only 20 percent of respondents said they were encouraged by their supervisors to take renewal breaks during the day. By contrast, those who were encouraged to take intermittent breaks reported they were 50 percent more engaged, more than twice as likely to stay with the company, and twice as healthy overall. Valuing and encouraging renewal requires no financial investment. What it does require is a willingness among leaders to test their longstanding assumption that that performance is best measured by the number of hours employees puts in -- and the more continuous the better -- rather than by the value they generate, however they choose to do their work.