Study Says 'Emotional Salary' Is More Important Than Money — But Workers Aren't Buying It

Are culture, feedback and career advancement really more important than fair pay? Well, it depends...

woman annoyed at work Franz Pfluegl /

Pay may be up, and the unemployment rate may be down, but a large proportion of American workers are still unhappy with their jobs.

A new study aims to explain why, but its focus on issues like company culture and advancement has struck some as unsettling. 

The study found that 'emotional salary' is more important than money to many of today's workers.

"Emotional salary" is the buzzphrase for issues like company culture, work-life balance, opportunity for advancement, and all the myriad other aspects of our jobs besides just the money we're paid. 


Of course, anyone who's ever had a job where these aspects weren't up to snuff knows how important they are — all the money in the world can't salvage a dead-end job that falls short on these key aspects. A new study by HR research firm Achievers Workforce Institute shows this is fast becoming an important issue for American workers. 

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AWI found that two-thirds of workers plan to find a new job in 2024. This is in line with many other surveys on the matter, which have shown anywhere from 36% to a staggering 95% of workers are in "take this job and shove it" mode. 

However, unlike the Great Resignation in 2021, AWI found that for many workers, money isn't the chief reason so many are fed up with their jobs. 

The study found that for people making a livable salary, flexibility and career progression were motivating them to quit their jobs.

Unsurprisingly, AWI found that for people who said they're struggling to pay their bills each month, better compensation was overwhelmingly the priority for finding new work by a double-digit percentage. However, the more satisfied respondents were with their pay, the more important issues other than money became. 

For people who said they have to budget carefully but can meet their financial needs — the break-even, paycheck-to-paycheck folks — finding a job with better opportunities for career progression was basically tied with wanting more money. 


And for those living comfortably on their pay, the relationship flipped entirely. Flexibility became the top priority by a substantial margin. It's hard not to wonder if all the return-to-office mandates we keep hearing about — which are wildly unpopular with workers — are having an impact on those numbers. 



Overall, AWI's survey found that workplace culture, recognition and feedback, and positive relationships in the office have become high priorities for workers. For example, 72% of workers said they would prefer to feel supported and valued rather than get a 30% raise and feel undervalued.

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However, many workers are not buying AWI's findings about the importance of pay.

In many ways, AWI's survey isn't all that interesting. Of course, workers care more about culture if they're already making enough money. Anyone can do that math! And this left many online feeling like the survey was a bit out of touch. 

"Can't wait to pay my mortgage with that emotional raise," the irreverently named X account, [Expletive] You I Quit, tweeted about the study. "While yes, workplaces need to be more fulfilling and rewarding in more ways than just money, money is the most important part. We aren't here for friends." 

But pay aside, AWI's findings may well be a reflection of some of the other things that have gone so terribly sideways in our working lives. Namely, that there is so very little job security or loyalty from employers anymore. That's long been the case, but it seems to have ratcheted up several notches in recent years.


A just-released study by accounting firm PwC, for example, had shockingly revealing findings: while only about one-third of employees actually trust their employers, a staggering 86% of employers said they think employee trust is high, showing just how wide a disconnect there is between workers and corporate leadership nowadays. 



AWI's findings may well point to the ways this disconnect is manifesting in the workforce. In these uncertain times, workers are very keenly focused on finding jobs where they can at least somewhat trust that they're going to have a long-term future and not going to get screwed over, to put it bluntly.

Still, as AWI's survey and many others show, these "emotional salary" aspects are only more important than money to those who have plenty of it. And when it comes to relations between employers and workers? Well, nothing generates trust like fair pay, so it's probably a great place to start. 


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John Sundholm is a news and entertainment writer who covers pop culture, social justice, and human interest topics.