All about the money? The reasons why we work

Somebody once said work is an important channel through which life comes to us. But what exactly are people looking for in today’s world of work? Amanda Matthee asked around.

Clearly money is no longer the only reason why people work. Granted, we need money to pay our policies and petrol each month. But people are increasingly looking for jobs that also feed “your soul and yourself”, as one alumnus of South Africa’s University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB) put it.

In a mini survey, USB alumni indicated the following as the key reasons why they had chosen their current jobs: money (62%), career growth (50%), quality of life after work (travel, fun, the financial ability to afford things) (20%), they like what they are doing (20%), the people they work with (20%), the short distance between their work and their homes (20%), and company values with which they can identify (10%).

Based on the survey, money is the most important reason why most people work where they are currently working. But money is not the only reason. In fact, only one respondent said it is about money and nothing else. The rest all added career growth or other benefits. One MBA alumnus currently working in the UK explained: “It’s a job and it pays our bond in pounds and not in rand, and it also enables us to travel.”

Various surveys from all over the world indicate that salary is moving lower down on the list of reasons why people choose a specific job. A Princeton survey in the USA found that people are looking for the following in a job: medical aid benefits (84%), work security (82%), retirement benefits (76%), and a flexible and family-friendly work environment (71%). Remuneration was tenth on this list (65%). The survey also pointed out that different age groups have different needs. Promotion was important for most of the people between 18 and 29, while it was less important for those aged 42 to 61.

Quality of life is therefore becoming increasingly important. According to Retha Alberts, who lectures on leadership and change management at USB Executive Development (USB-ED), “the loss of meaning in our work is one of the biggest causes for stress in our lives today”.

Alberts mentioned that the so-called “winners” of the corporate game are the people earning the most money. “Values such as time spent with your family or loved ones, time to relax and enjoy things, time to take care of your inner needs and the opportunity to find fulfilment through the work that we do is sacrificed to pursue bigger profits and financial gain,” she said.

In the light of this, it is interesting to note that some of the respondents who mentioned quality of life as a motivating factor, qualified this by adding “after work”.

Work without meaning also leads to an increase in stress-related diseases. Alberts said statistics available for South Africa correspond with international figures. In the rest of Africa too, there is a significant increase in stress-related or lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, cancer and high blood pressure.

Why, then, are we working? One of the alumni said he once lost his job owing to retrenchment. However, this was a blessing in disguise as he found out with exactly how little he could make do. Unemployment and change do not scare him anymore. He now knows that he will be able to survive and change jobs. Hence, he no longer has to “swallow everything for the sake of a salary”. As a result, he stresses less about his job.

In the USA today, people remain in a position for an average of five years and they work for about seven different employers during the course of their careers. This is an enormous shift from one generation ago when most of our parents worked for the same company for their entire lives. This also means freeing yourself from the “corporate parent” who is always there to take care of you. People are much more choosey about where and why they are investing their time and talent. More and more gurus are warning against soul-destroying work, while people are increasingly looking for soul growth through their jobs. People want “meaningful” work – the respondents in our dip-stick survey mentioned things like: “it is an innovative company with an entrepreneurial approach and they empower people” and “they care about their people”.

The huge gap between the reasons why people resign from their jobs and the reasons their employers provide for these resignations is also noteworthy. In his book, The 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave, Leigh Branham explains that about 90% of the 19 000 people he interviewed resigned as a result of their “job, manager, the culture or work environment”, while about 90% of the employers believed money was the biggest reason for these resignations. This means employers are losing people for reasons they are blissfully unaware of or do not even try to rectify. Surveys by and others reach the same conclusion: companies’ efforts to retain their most valuable employees do not correspond with what their employees want. However, it is significant to note that more than half of the dissatisfied employees in a survey said they would stay another year for as little as a 15% increase in their basic salaries.

So, money provides basic motivation. But it takes more than money to retain people. Hence, things like “the people I work with”, “my office is close to where I live”, “company values” and even “convenient parking” are important to USB alumni. Only two people mentioned unselfish reasons like “reinvestment in the community” and “a company that cares” as motivators for their choice of work. All the other reasons are about a combination of benefits for the individual on a professional as well as a personal level.

This article was first published in the University of Stellenbosch Business School’s Agenda magazine.