Clodagh Beaty explains how understanding your emotional salary can help you build a fulfilling career

Why Do You Work?

Most of you will say “For the money, of course!” There is no doubt that money is an essential element of working, and we must be paid fairly for our work. But what happens when you take money out of the equation? What is it that motivates you at work and drives you to do a great job? Research shows that it probably isn’t the money. Imagine for a moment that you were offered two similar jobs with an identical salary and benefits package. How would you decide which one was right for you? What would be most important to you?

This is where your emotional salary comes in. Emotional salary is the non-financial or intangible aspects of our work that motivate us and lead to personal and professional development. From our research, we’ve identified 10 different factors that constitute our emotional salary. Although they’re not emotions, their existence or non-existence is likely to impact how we feel about our work and generate an emotional response in us. In other words, our salary and benefits are the financial reward we get from our work, while our emotional salary is the emotional reward we get from our work.

The Benefits of Understanding our Emotional Salary

When it comes to career development, understanding our emotional salary benefits us in several ways.

  • We gain a clearer understanding of exactly what motivates us and the emotional benefits we get from our work
  • It helps us to set career goals and objectives that are meaningful and rewarding for us
  • It enables us to have honest and constructive conversations about our role and career progression with our colleagues and managers
  • It helps us identify areas for growth and development
  • It enables us to make well-informed decisions about important elements of our work and career

In short, it can help us to build a fulfilling and successful career.

How Our Mind Can Get in the Way

The problem is that many of us are not consciously aware of our emotional salary, and there are a couple of psychological principles that affect how we feel about our work.

Firstly, negative bias means that many of us tend to spend way more time thinking about what’s not going so well at work, rather than what is going well. The effect of this is that we tend to notice our emotional salary more when it is being negatively impacted (for example, when there is change in a procedure or system that affects how we do our job, or a valued co-worker leaves). When I left my corporate HR role 12 years ago to start my own business, I really missed being part of a dynamic, professional team and the sense of pride I had at working for a prestigious organisation. When we focus too much on the negative aspects of our work, we can end up feeling demotivated and disengaged unless we take the time to acknowledge what is going well.

It’s also important for us to maintain an awareness of our emotional salary on an ongoing basis. Hedonic adaptation is another psychological principle whereby we quickly get used to positive (or negative) events, and after the initial change in feelings, our feelings return to the same level they were previously. In other words, when things become familiar, we start taking them for granted and we don’t appreciate them or notice them anymore. During the pandemic, like many of us, I had to be much more innovative and flexible in my work. I discovered that it was something I really relished. That aspect of my work has continued, but I don’t get the same buzz from it that I did at first, so I need to take time to acknowledge it and appreciate it on a regular basis.

From Awareness to Empowerment

When we gain awareness of what is important to us in terms of our emotional salary, we can start to appreciate what we have and understand what we don’t have. This process leads to a shift in our perception of our work, and we can feel empowered to take responsibility and action.

This obviously works both ways. If we examine our emotional salary and discover that we are lacking many emotional benefits that are important to us, we have a choice – stay in our current role and explore how to get more of what is important to us in order to build the career we want, or decide to develop our career in another direction or at another organisation. This is where the role of our manager, team and the culture we are working in becomes critical. If it is supportive and offers us opportunities to increase our emotional salary, then obviously we are more likely to stay, as we’ll feel listened to, valued and motivated. But if we are not supported, at the very least, we have the information which enables us to make an informed decision and take action to build a fulfilling career.

The 10 Factors of Emotional Salary

From our research, we have identified 10 factors that constitute emotional salary. It is important to recognise that emotional salary is subjective. Two people in the same team with the same job and manager could have completely different emotional salaries. Each one of us is unique and we value different things, so it makes sense that the importance of these factors and how we interpret them will vary from person to person.


Autonomy is not about flexible working or working from home, but about the perception we have of freedom and control over our tasks, projects and time. It is about being respected and trusted to manage these things in the way we see fit, and in a way that takes into account our own personal style and our values.


Belonging is about the sense of connection we have with our role, the organisation and the people we have exposure to. It is about feeling that we are valued, recognised and appreciated for what we do, not just by our manager and colleagues but by anyone we encounter during the course of our work.


Creativity is not just about “creative” work like design, but about how we can be creative within the scope of our role – for example, having the opportunity to explore new and different ways of doing things, expressing and implementing our original ideas and putting our own personal stamp on what we do.


Direction relates to our career path – specifically, having opportunities at work that enable us to envision and create a fulfilling career. It is being able to make and contribute to decisions that affect our career and having flexibility and options in terms of how our career can develop. It is not necessarily about improving our skills and abilities, but more about having an opportunity to use them and develop them.


Enjoyment is not solely enjoying the work that we do but enjoying the time that we spend at work. It is about having fun, pleasure and opportunities for play and humour at work. It is also about having opportunities to build authentic social relationships based on respect and trust.


Inspiration is much more than being inspired at work and inspiring others. It is being able to connect with our values, see possibilities and gain new perspectives, and integrate these into our working day.


Mastery is about having the opportunity to become better and better at what we do. It’s having the time and space to go beyond the technical skills and abilities needed for our role and become an expert, as well as the personal satisfaction we gain from a job well done.

Personal growth

Personal growth relates to becoming more self-aware, flexible and reflective. It is having opportunities to learn from our mistakes and interactions with others at work in order to become better human beings.

Professional growth

Professional growth is connected to both direction and mastery to a certain extent. It relates to how we can develop the talents, skills and abilities we need to do our work. We can get this through training, coaching, mentoring and learning from others, but also through exposure to stimulating work, being reflective and learning from our mistakes.


Purpose is about feeling that we are making an impact. This could be through having a clear sense of how our role aligns to our personal purpose and values or the impact and contribution our role has to the organisation’s purpose.

Some Important Things to Remember

When you start to think about how your emotional salary manifests on a day-to-day basis, you’ll notice that in many situations there may be several of the 10 factors manifesting at the same time. For example, presenting your ideas in a meeting is likely to impact the factors of creativity (expressing original ideas), belonging (feeling connected and appreciated), autonomy (feeling respected and trusted) and personal growth (becoming more self-aware). And it is entirely possible that other factors will also be present depending on the context and content of the meeting and what is important to you!

Our emotional salary is not static – it is fluid and changes over time. Changes in our work content or work environment can have a big impact on our emotional salary. This is especially apparent if it is connected to a factor that is very important to us. Autonomy is incredibly important to me, so if I am put in a situation where I feel that I do not have the usual amount of freedom or control over my work (for example, if I was asked to structure and deliver a training course in a very specific way and was not allowed to use my own materials but was given the materials to use), then this is going to have a negative impact on my emotional salary. But that impact on my autonomy will probably only last whilst I am involved in that project.

Gaining awareness of your emotional salary is the first step, but communication and action are needed to build a successful and fulfilling career. We can use the 10 factors as a comprehensive framework to explore how we feel about our work and career. It is like having a language we can use to talk about what it important to us at work. We can use this framework to communicate clearly how we would like our roles and careers to develop considering the emotional benefits we gain from our work. The key is to take action. This might mean having a conversation with a colleague or manager to explore how we can get more exposure to a certain factor.

When we have people management or leadership responsibilities, this framework can support us in structuring conversations about what is important for all of our team members. We can use the information we discover about our team’s emotional salary to co-create and maintain a team culture which takes into account what is important for every team member. This focus on shared responsibility and co-creation is a much more people-centric approach, which is likely to result in increased motivation and engagement within the team.

Finally, we need to recognise that our emotional salary is the result of:

•           the culture we experience at work

•           the people management strategies and policies of the organisation or team

•           our leaders or managers

•           our own decisions and behaviour at work

In other words, emotional salary is a shared responsibility, and as individuals, we have a really important role to play. Even in a work environment that offers us multiple opportunities to increase our emotional salary, we still need to take responsibility and take action if we want to develop a fulfilling career.

Take 10 Days to Explore Your Emotional Salary

If you want to explore your emotional salary, a great way to do it is to focus on one factor a day for the next couple of weeks. Once you have selected which factor you want to focus on, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How much of this factor do I have in my current role? (You might even want to give yourself a score out of 10)
  • How important is this factor for me?
  • What would having more of this factor look like in my role?
  • What opportunities do I have to get more of this factor?
  • What conversations could I have to create more opportunities?
  • What action can I commit to taking in relation to this factor?

Focus on What You Can Control

We must accept that there are likely to be certain things at work that impact our emotional salary that are outside our control. It is important that we focus our energy and attention on what we can control. We can’t control other people, but we can control how we respond to them. We can control our attitude and we can control our mindset. However, it is important that we explore opportunities and have conversations about what else might be possible for us rather than just making assumptions that nothing can or will change.


We spend most of our waking hours working. If we added up all the time we spend at work, it would come to around 90,000 hours or one-third of our entire lives. We owe it to ourselves to do everything in our power to make that time as enjoyable and fulfilling as possible.

Clodagh Beaty is a people and organisational development expert and the co-creator of the Emotional Salary Barometer, a tool that measures the emotional benefits we get from our work. She is a passionate believer that we all deserve to feel fulfilled at ... (Read More)

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