Is meaningful work more than simply job satisfaction? I think I’d have to answer that with an overwhelming -YES.
How often do we use the terms ‘meaning’ or ‘meaningful’ when speaking about the activity we spend a minimum of 8 hours a day doing? Meaningful work is so much more than simply personal satisfaction. It is a connection or an affinity to tasks, activities and responsibilities directly related to one’s personal values. It encourages a ‘bigger picture’ focus and allows one to fully engage their talents.
When work is linked or tied to core values, beliefs and sense of purpose, an individual feels personally at their best. They are motivated when they feel their work makes a positive difference. Although a company’s business is valuable to the employer, for the individual it certainly helps when they believe their participation in the business is also important to a greater cause.
Meaningful activity and doing work we love, doesn’t feel like work—it makes one feel alive.
According to studies there are six characteristics that contribute to making work meaningful:
- Social purpose/utility
- Learning/development opportunities
- Moral correctness
- Quality of relationships
It is believed that Confucius said, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life”
Meaning and Work
Work is a fundamental, essential and dominant experience in the human existence. Today, most companies acknowledge that there is a crucial link between job satisfaction and productivity.
Whenever people meet for the first time it is almost automatic that they ask ‘what do you do?’ Is this because one’s work is perceived as their identity? Why does work’s influence go beyond the work day and into the outside world? It seems there is a perception that our jobs provide a window into our values, our goals and/or our personality; making it easier and faster for one to relate to us.
Making a Meaningful Difference
It is human nature to want to make a difference. There are few avenues (paid or otherwise) that offer humans the promise of achieving valued outcomes in the form of meaningful work. Research has shown that finding meaning in one’s work increases personal motivation, engagement, empowerment, career development, job satisfaction, individual performance and personal fulfillment.
Performing meaningful work is important for mental health and physical well-being; resulting in living a longer and healthier life. Meaningful work has the second highest correlation – just below autonomy and recognition – with producing higher work satisfaction, commitment, retention and a significantly lower burnout rate.
Meaningful work is good for the employee and good for the company.
Meaningful Work and Personal Engagement
A 2013 Gallup Inc. report stated that only about 30% of the workforce are engaged in their work at any given time. Engagement being defined as passionate about the work and feeling strongly committed to the company.
The remaining 70% of employees, were viewed as disengaged – individuals who have “checked out” and are putting in time without much thought, energy or passion. Unfortunately, these disengaged employees may act out on their unhappiness. Unhappiness can appear in the form of high absenteeism, use up an excessive amount of their managers’ time or undermine the accomplishments of their co-workers. Disengagement costs to business are enormous and estimated to be somewhere between $450 billion to $550 billion annually.
Most people find the value in their work when they are able to apply their unique skills and talents to really ‘shine’ while making an impact. When personal recognition is added to this equation, a true sense of meaningful work results.
Meaning and the Workplace
When employees feel their work has meaning, it drives commitment, retention, and increased discretionary efforts. Studies have shown that employees are 41% more likely to become interested and absorbed in their work if they have a job that contributes to enriching or fulfilling their life’s purpose.
Additionally, studies have proven that when an employee performs work that helps them achieve one or more of their personal goals or touch on their personal values, they are:
- 34% more likely to work beyond what is expected
- 52% more likely to feel committed to their employer
Have business practices in the last 20 years affected how employees feel about their work? Has the application of business efficiencies, cost-cutting and scalability measures had a negative effect and challenged employees?
Unexplained company changes that result in an employee’s e inability to understand the “why” of decision making often leaves people miserable, frustrated and feeling helpless. At the same time, layoffs and other forms of job loss have devastated employees – those that go and those who are left behind.
It’s easy to understand how a misalignment in business purpose combined with poor communication can enhance or inhibit productivity, motivation and sense of meaning. Sharing and demonstrating the connection between the company’s purpose, goals and strategy with the employee’s work, effort and contributions can go a very long way to providing a sense of purpose and meaning for the individual.
“Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.” – Aristotle
Understanding Meaning in Work.
It is entirely possible to perform meaningful work in an environment that is not meaningful. And vice versa. A meaningful workplace can still have employees who feel their work has no meaning.
Individuals will always assign significance to their work in a variety of ways – again, it’s human nature. Because meaningful work is not always about the “why” – it is a good practice to also consider the “what”.
Meaning is sometimes created by the individual or the organization. Other times individuals bring their own personal sense of meaning and mission with them to the job. Either way, a company can create meaning by providing the right work environment that allows every employee to participate in success, cohesiveness and contribute to building a healthy corporate culture.
Work that is meaningful for one person may feel inconsequential for another. Because the perception of worthwhile work is up to the individual, understanding where it originates can be helpful. Worthiness may be dependent on culture, gender, socioeconomic status and/or be a learned view of the world experienced in childhood through role modelling.
- “Who am I helping?”
- “How am I helping?”
The “helping” aspect often includes three components:
- Does the work make sense?
- What is the point of the work?.
- What benefit or greater good is provided by the work?
The answers are never clear-cut. Is there meaning in helping customers, partners or stakeholders? Is meaning derived from what the job affords the individual? The ability to provide for their family, pursue non-work activities, build personal relationships, experience camaraderie, etc.
Often times individuals find meaning in being able to advance themselves or become the best they can be – regardless of their role. People with a craftsmanship orientation take pride in performing the job well. Those with a service orientation find purpose in the ideology or belief system behind their work. Some people extract meaning from a sense of kinship and relationships with their co-workers.
“The biggest mistake people make is not making a living at doing what they most enjoy.” ~ Malcom Forbes, Publisher, Forbes Magazine
Take Charge and Create Meaning
Some people believe they must change careers to find deeper meaning or gratification in their work. This can definitely be a legitimate reason to move on but it doesn’t have to always be that drastic. Understanding the ‘’why” is important because where ever someone moves they have to take themselves with them.
- Figure out what one wants from their work
- Take the initiative to move in that direction
- Change the attitude, not necessarily the job
- Look outside of work for more meaning
- Continue to keep one’s options open
Individuals can also redefine meaning for themselves, reshape their work experiences and find their quasi-mythical “meaningful work zone.” in three broad ways
- Be your own Boss. Alter the tasks performed by becoming the architect of the tasks. Spend more energy on existing tasks that are particularly gratifying, even if it increases overall workload. Master new skills and improve. Ask for more autonomy.
- Change relationships in the workplace. Spend more time collaborating with valued colleagues to reinvigorate oneself. Ask for recognition for contributions made.
- Use cognitive restructuring to re-frame the way the work is regarded or evaluated. Step back and look for the direct connection between effort and reward – the bigger things that really matter – financial, spiritual, etc.
There is an old tale that comes to mind. Three bricklayers were hard at work. When asked what they were doing, the first bricklayer said, “I’m putting one brick on top of another.” The second stated, “I’m making $15 an hour.” And the third pronounced, “I’m building a cathedral for worshippers.”
Deep meaning doesn’t come casually – it is the individual who must label it.
Here are a couple of links you may find of interest on the subject of Work, Value and Meaning – Ten Ways to Know if Your Job is Meaningful
TedTalk on the subject of Quit Your Job and Find Your Work
“A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and gets to bed at night, and in between he does what he wants to do.”
~ Robert Zimmerman aka Bob Dylan