Exploring How Employees Think About Work

Exploring How Employees Think About Work

The days of linear career paths and one-size-fits-all employment contracts are long gone, according to many experts. In today’s gig economy, an increasing number of employees want to forge their own way and establish idiosyncratic employment arrangements with their employers. As a result, more organizations are tailoring work experiences and career paths for their workforce.

Creating a work environment that can accommodate the unique needs of a diverse employee population requires a deep understanding of how people think about their jobs. Research by Amy Wrzesniewski and her colleagues (1997) shows that people have different perspectives about the meaning of work.  Some see their job as just a job—something they do in exchange for money. Others see their job as a stepping stone in their career. And some see their job as their calling or vocation.

Based on Wrzesniewski’s research, we recently developed a self-report diagnostic question to evaluate the way employees think about their current job. We then administered this question, along with other employee engagement and organizational effectiveness items, to a cross-company sample of over 1,700 employees working in small, medium, and large organizations. Three key findings emerged:

  • Most people think of their job as just a job.  In our sample, we found that 39% felt their current job was just a job, 33% a career stepping stone, and 28% a personal calling or vocation.
  • Engagement levels vary based on the way people view their job.  90% of employees who think of their current job as their vocation are engaged.  By contrast, only 48% of employees who think of their current job as just a job are engaged. Career focused employees are in the middle, with 72% engaged.
  • A sense of vocation requires meaningful work, clear career paths, and collaborative leadership. Based on analysis, employees are more likely to think their job is a calling when (a) the work they do provides a sense of personal accomplishment; (b) they feel optimistic their career goals can be met at their organization; and (c) they feel their leaders treat employees as trusted partners and colleagues.

This study emphasizes the importance of job fit. When employees are working in jobs that are meaningful, they are more motivated, committed, and resilient. Organizations can create more engaging experiences for employees by ensuring they are placed into jobs and roles that are personally significant and provide a deep sense of purpose and fulfillment.

Patrick Hyland, PhD
by Patrick Hyland, PhD

Research and Development, Mercer Employee Research

Anthony W. Caputo
by Anthony W. Caputo

Vice President of People Operations, Remesh

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