Nearly one in 4 American workers would take a pay cut in favour of more time off — and research says this could lead to better job performance

Getty ImagesAmericans care more about work-life balance than money, according to research from Prudential.

If they had to pick, Americans today would rather have a life outside the office than a lofty salary, a new survey finds.

More Americans will choose a better work-life balance in place of more money, according to Prudential’s Pulse of the American Worker survey conducted by Morning Consult in June 2019 and released by Prudential on August 22. In fact, nearly 1 in 4 workers would actually take a pay cut in favour of more time off.

The survey asked 2,000 full-time employees a series of online questions between June 3 and June 5, 2019.

The biggest factor in achieving a better work-life balance is having the flexibility to work from home or take time off. Outside of compensation, 48% of respondents to the Prudential survey said a flexible work schedule is the biggest factor to stay with their current employer, 35% said they value the opportunities to move into different roles in their organisation, and 25% said they stay because of a supportive manager.

Read more: While CEOs like Jack Ma and Elon Musk praise gruelling job schedules, employees around the world are demanding shorter workweeks

It’s not just workers desiring more of a life outside the office – science says employees can actually perform better by working less. Experts say shorter workweeks lead to more productivity, in part because workers have trouble concentrating on tasks for longer than three hours.

Science, too, suggests that money isn’t always the best way to motivate workers.

Here’s why that is – and how employers can more effectively motivate their employees.


More Americans want a better work-life balance instead of higher pay.

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When asked why they left their last job, 41% of American workers said it was because their company did not offer enough balance between work and the rest of their lives, the report found. That’s more than those who left due to receiving an offer for more money at another job – 36% left their old jobs due to getting a raise at their new company.

The US is notoriously worse at providing workers work-life balance than other countries: Americans work longer hours than most of the developed world. The US is the only developed country that does not mandate employers provide paid vacation or a form of parental leave.


Some companies are offering more time off in exchange for lower pay.

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Amazon announced a pilot program in 2016 that would allow some part-time employees to work 30 hours a week for lower pay. (The company did not immediately respond to Business Insider reporter Peter Kotecki’s request for additional comment on the current status of the program for a July 2018 story.)

Grey, a New York City advertising and marketing firm, similarly offered employees the option of a 4-day workweek in exchange for a 15% pay cut. The company hoped that shorter workweeks would lead to happier, more productive employees, regardless of the pay cut, Business Insider’s Áine Cain previously reported in October 2018.


Research suggests that giving people incentives — like more money — to perform better only temporarily changes behaviour.

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The go-to cliché for motivation is thecarrot and the stick, with the carrot being the sweet reward and the stick the thwapping punishment. But like popular author Dan Pink argues in “Drive,” that reward-and-punishment system might work for motivating people to do simple tasks, but it’s not so great for getting people to do complex work over the long term.

Psychological research has shown that rewards only yield “temporary compliance”: Your behaviour might change for a period of time, but it will eventually slide back like so many failed diets. As social scientist Alfie Kohn has observed at the Harvard Business Review, rewards like money, vacations, banquets, and plaques do little in the way of changing people’s attitudes. It’s the same reason why offering incentives to quit smoking, lose weight, or use a seatbelt are terrible strategies for making long-term behaviour change.

“Incentives […] do not alter the attitudes that underlie our behaviours,” Kohn says. “They do not create an enduring commitment to any value or action. Rather, incentives merely – and temporarily – change what we do.”


Paying employees more won’t get them to work harder — but paying them too little will still discourage them.

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Salary is part of what management theorists call a hygiene factor, which also includes status, job security, work conditions, and how your manager treats you. While not having proper “hygiene” makes people feel demotivated at work, the theory goes, having lots of hygiene doesn’t make you more motivated.

“It is plausible to assume that if someone’s take-home pay was cut in half, his or her morale would suffer enough to undermine performance,” Kohn continues in his report for the Harvard Business Review. “But it doesn’t necessarily follow that doubling that person’s pay would result in better work.”


Research suggests that giving workers tools for personal growth and recognition motivates them to perform better and increases job satisfaction.

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Unsurprisingly, the management literature calls them motivators: personal growth, recognition, responsibility, and challenging work.

“Motivation is much less about external prodding or stimulation,” management sage Clay Christensen explains in a 2012 essay for Fast Company, “and much more about what’s inside of you and inside of your work.”

In other words, the most motivated people aren’t the best paid, but those who feel a connection with their work.

As Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile has found, a sense of progress is crucial to actually staying engaged. In an experiment detailed in her book “The Progress Principle,” she asked 238 employees across seven companies to keep daily diaries of their workdays. She found a pattern:

“A close analysis of nearly 12,000 diary entries, together with the writers’ daily ratings of their motivation and emotions, shows that making progress in one’s work – even incremental progress – is more frequently associated with positive emotions and high motivation than any other workday event.”

Amabile’s work suggests progressing toward their goals, not pay, makes employees happier and better motivated.


Employers can better motivate workers by providing clear goals, as well as giving them the emotional support needed to reach those goals.

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The lesson here? Rather than structuring our workdays (and our employees’ workdays) around rewards, we should instead structure them around continual, meaningful progress. For Amabile, the top two factors for supporting that continual progress are catalysts and nourishers. As she explained at Forbes:

“The catalyst factor includes events that directly enable progress in the work. Catalysts include things like providing clear goals for the work and providing people with sufficient resources to accomplish those goals …

Nourishers directly support people’s inner work lives and include actions like showing respect and providing emotional support.”

Together, Amabile finds, the catalysts and the nourishers help shape a sense of progress. That leads to motivated, meaningful work for individuals – which makes employees happy and helps companies perform.

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