The psychology of employee satisfaction: fulfilling needs and giving purpose

Get workplace mental health insights

straight in your inbox, fresh from the experts.

According to a report from Chief Executives for Corporate Purpose and PwC, a whopping 70% of employees would consider leaving their role for a more fulfilling one. Some would even consider taking a hefty pay cut. 

Feeling fulfilled is obviously important to people - but what does it actually mean? 

We all have fundamental needs that require satisfying, from basic physiological and safety needs such as food and shelter to higher, more internal needs such as connection, autonomy, and growth. Our motivation to meet these needs influences our behaviour and overall satisfaction. When these needs are met, we feel fulfilled, and this fulfilment plays a big role in our overall mental health. 

This is no different when it comes to the workplace. Employees who feel their needs are being met are more likely to be motivated and productive, with much higher levels of engagement. Highly engaged businesses show 59% less turnover, according to Gallup.

Conversely, unmet needs can lead to withdrawal, mental health decline, quitting, or (potentially worse) an “inner resignation”, where people are paid to do a job they are actively disengaged in - which is a worrying 74% of people, according to a 2021 Gallup poll.


Identifying employee needs

According to the Two Factor Theory developed by psychologist Frederick Hezberg (1959), employers should be looking at two separate factors that appeal to two different kinds of needs.

One of these factors is responsible for job satisfaction, and the other is responsible for dissatisfaction.

Hygiene factors: These are primary external factors, such as salary, working conditions, and quality of supervisor. Hygiene factors fulfil our most basic physiological and safety needs, and the absence of these factors causes dissatisfaction. However, hygiene factors alone do not leave employees highly satisfied. 

Motivator factors: These are internal satisfiers, such as recognition, autonomy, and opportunities for advancement. Motivators fulfil our most internal needs for growth, belonging, and self-actualisation and increase job satisfaction. 

Although people can feel moderately satisfied with just high levels of hygiene factors, workplaces that also fulfil internal needs are likely to have more motivated, committed, and happier employees. 

According to Gemma Campbell, a clinical counsellor at Kooth, establishing workplace needs must be a cooperative process: “It’s about how an individual meets your business needs, but it’s also about how you as an employer can meet their needs. Targeting higher needs and helping people grow is more likely to lead to job satisfaction and greater return for your company than if you just meet basic needs.

“Valuing people is collaborative, and meeting needs is part of the psychological contract - you look after me, and I’ll look after your business.” 


A post-pandemic re-evaluation of needs

COVID-19 has given breathing space for people to evaluate their needs.

According to Campbell: “People have had time to think about what is really important to them. For some, the need for more enriching work has been crucial; others need more autonomy, a culture with more connection, or fairer pay.

“But this space has allowed some to come to the conclusion that their current needs are not being fulfilled, which may contribute to a decision to leave.” 

Of course, not every resignation is down to unmet needs that employers can necessarily control. Some people are leaving jobs because they want a change in direction or find themselves in new circumstances, making their job unsuitable. 

However, for many, the workplace setup of the pandemic era might bring about lower levels of hygiene factors, where the working conditions, job security, policies, and salary no longer suit basic needs, and previously enticing “perks of the job” have ceased. A time for reflection has also left many of us looking inwards, evaluating our higher needs and deeper purpose. In a quest to lead a more fulfilling life, many are growing in self-determination and making changes as a result.

Unfortunately for some employers, the Great Resignation may be the peak of this much more widespread shift in perspective. Many of us are now desperate for meaningful work where our mental health is supported by employers, and there are opportunities for growth, recognition, autonomy, and belonging.

And employees are not afraid to leave if these internal needs aren’t met. An MIT Sloan review found the most common reasons for recent resignations come down to culture, innovation, recognition, and opportunities. 


Supporting employee mental health through fulfilling needs 

So, how can employers go about identifying and meeting their employees’ needs?

Avoid hygiene stressors and enhance motivators

Ensuring your employees have their basic needs met removes hygiene stressors. 

But ensuring a higher level of satisfaction, and thus retention, requires companies to hone in on the higher needs and motivator factors of employees. This involves: 

  • Providing challenge and variation at work
  • Giving chances for progression 
  • Empowering employees by putting their feedback at the forefront of decision making
  • Having opportunities for team working
  • Giving employees autonomy
  • Offering recognition

Employers should also be wary of the “over-justification effect”- using too many external rewards, such as bonuses, to honour intrinsically motivated behaviour. Research shows that this can undermine people and lead to an overall drop in motivation. 


Let your employees lead

As pacemakers of a company, HR staff may be used to setting the tone and having employees follow. But when fulfilling needs, it’s crucial it’s done with employees, not done to them.

Value the employee voice and give control by asking your employees for suggestions through polling and regular discussion, and use this as the basis for decision making. Giving this autonomy will also lead to higher feelings of respect and trust within the company, as well as create a psychologically safe space where people can have open conversations. 


Embrace flexibility and fluidity

According to Campbell: “Employers must constantly evolve with people. Needs change and grow; employers should bend to this and actually promote change. People often outgrow roles. For ultimate personal and business potential, employers should help individuals keep progressing, and fuel this growth by meeting new needs.”

Employers also need to make sure that they’re maximising equity and inclusivity by being flexible to varying individual needs. Offering fair opportunities in every part of the workplace, from job advancement to benefits to wellbeing packages, helps meet the unique and diverse needs of the workforce. 


Reinforce a culture of purpose 

A PwC survey found that 83% of workers valued meaning and purpose as one of the most important characteristics at work.

Employers should be looking to embed purpose, helping employees to feel aligned with the company, goals, and their colleagues. This could be done by:

  • Recognising achievements and how work contributes to making a difference
  • Encouraging collaboration between teams so people can get a wider understanding of how their role fits into the business
  • Offering learning and development opportunities 
  • Asking for feedback

But be wary of trying to make drastic shifts that might be seen as a one-off. Culture comes down to the everyday, so employers should look to evolve a purposeful culture into small, medium, and long-term thinking.


Prioritise wellbeing and mental health 

With mental ill-health awareness and statistics at an all-time high since COVID-19, the wellbeing needs of employees has taken centre focus. 

Supporting employee wellbeing includes promoting wellbeing in the workplace culture (including mental health conversations in policies and reviews), mitigating for workplace stress, and supporting those with mental health conditions.  

But this also must be done explicitly. According to Campbell, “Forward-thinking businesses in this current climate are ones who actively seek out to improve their employee’s wellbeing needs. Companies should offer access to effective wellbeing tools that give strategies and privacy to support employees with individual needs and to unlock their potential.” 

Kooth Work is an online BACP accredited service, where employees have 24/7 access to a wide range of wellbeing services, including self-help tools, forums, and professional 1:1 counselling. Providing personalised and anonymous care, Kooth Work reaches the harder to reach people, and provides wellbeing support for employers who genuinely want to make a difference. 


A sign of hope

Although it’s taken a shockwave of losses, maybe the Great Resignation was the root shift we all needed.  

Employees are demanding systemic change, calling for better fulfilment of basic human needs and more consideration and care for mental wellbeing. Employers have also seen that a business without well cared for staff is anything but successful. 

In a window where fundamental change is accepted, employers should seize this opportunity to put people first, demonstrating their commitment with words and action. Then we can look forward to a future where all workforces are stronger, more sustainable and - crucially - more fulfilled. 

To read more about how you can attract and retain your talent, download our guide on beating the Great Resignation today. 

About the author

About Kooth Work

Award-winning digital mental wellbeing platform:

+ Strategic clinical mental wellbeing advisory.

+ Flourish workforce mental health check audit.

+ Qwell anonymous digital support.

+ Anonymised data insights and reporting.

+ Part of your Mental Wellbeing Support System. 

BACP accredited, trusted by the NHS,
now available to employers.

Book a demo     Learn more