It's not pay, benefits and other fundamentals that drive job satisfaction. It's meaningful work.

Employers, the results are in: Workers say they're happiest when they feel like they're contributing to something meaningful, at a company operating with strong values and ethics, and under a manager who cares about their concerns. Throw in flexibility to balance work and personal life, and you have job satisfaction.

In Columbus CEO's 2018 Top Workplaces survey—reaching more than 19,000 central Ohio employees—the desire for meaningfulness at work was up more than any other measure, at 3.9 percent over last year. “That's really great because meaningfulness is one of our strongest correlations of engagement,” says Laura Santiago, research and data analyst at Energage, the Exton, Pennsylvania-based consulting firm that has worked with Columbus CEO to honor central Ohio companies with Top Workplaces awards since 2013.

It's well-documented that employee engagement reduces turnover and increases productivity, driving bottom-line results. And companies that naturally provide meaningful work are in a good position to keep employees happier, even if their industries necessitate lower pay.

That's the case for Homewatch CareGivers, an Upper Arlington agency that provides in-home care to disabled children, adults and elderly people. Most or all of Homewatch's 75 clients receive funding for services through Medicaid, which offers notoriously low rates of pay despite the societal importance of caregiving.

“People who have a passion for caregiving, they stay with us,” says Jon Hersh, who bought a franchise to open the local Homewatch office in 2003. “Yes, they might make 75 cents more an hour at Amazon, but that's not what they want. They want to make a career out of caring for others.

Homewatch was No. 3 among small companies in this year's Top Workplaces awards and scored particularly high for meaningfulness.

Cash Isn't King

Pay and benefits typically rank among the least important factors in overall workplace satisfaction, says Bob Helbig, media partnerships director at Energage. That's what the firm has seen for years as it surveys employees across the U.S.

“It's not unusual for people to say they're satisfied with their job, but they would like to be paid more or they would like better benefits,” Helbig says. “We all would, right?” That's probably good, since Columbus employees' satisfaction with their benefits was down 4 percent this year, the results show.

Relationships are more important, according to the survey results. If the data are any indicator, boss-worker relationships in Columbus have been getting better. Santiago analyzed Columbus workplace data going back to 2013, the year Columbus CEO began doing the Top Workplaces awards, and found scores on the survey's three manager statements have been steadily increasing.

“They saw actually a 5 percent increase, which is so great,” Santiago says. “That's a measure that looks at employees basically rating their managers and their relationships with their managers.”

Statements included “My manager makes it easier to do my job well,” “My manager helps me learn and grow,” and “My manager cares about my concerns.”

The Golden Rule—“treat everyone the way you would like to be treated”—is one way Dublin-based ERP Analysts Inc. achieved the No. 2 spot among small companies in the Top Workplaces awards this year. The tenet applies to everyone at ERPA from CEO Srikanth Gaddam to the newest hire. “We strongly believe everyone here has a purpose and everyone has meaning, and no one is better or more important than others,” its core values statement reads.

Companies with 50 workers or more are eligible to participate in the Top Workplaces evaluation. Energage administers anonymous surveys to employees online (and in rare cases, on paper), either attempting to engage all employees or surveying a random sample of employees at large workplaces.

Responses to 24 statements such as, “I believe this company is going in the right direction,” “This company encourages different points of view,” and “There is good interdepartmental cooperation at this company” are given on a scale ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.”

Mission Drives Engagement

Andy Boy graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a passion for urban education and started down a path that eventually led to him founding United Schools Network and opening four

college-prep charter schools in Columbus. The company is being recognized among small firms in Columbus CEO's Top Workplaces awards this year and scored highly for employee alignment

to company values and connection to their employer.

Boy's 115 employees gain great fulfillment working with their 700-plus students who go to schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods, he says. A key for Boy is making sure teachers fit with United Schools' mission when they're hired.

“We start everything with mission,” Boy says. “From there, we go right into some pretty intense training that helps deepen our team's engagement with the mission. That includes everything from deep study in cultural competency to getting people engaged in door-to-door recruitment of families.”

Teachers at United Schools go above and beyond for families, Boy says. During the school year, they remain available by cellphone until 8 p.m. for after-school homework questions and often serve as a support system for students' daily challenges at home and elsewhere.

That connection can't be overstatedin terms of employee work satisfaction. “That pays off in the life outcomes of our students and the excitement that comes from seeing our students now enrolling in Ivy League colleges,” Boy says. “It just reaffirms all that hard work was worth something—it was worth a lot.”

Katy Smith is a freelance writer.