Why should we bother about meaningful work?

Finding the perfect balance at work can mean different things to different people

Much has been researched and written about employees’ desire to find meaning in their work. But enforcing meaning, or misunderstanding what is meaningful to different individuals, can be counter-productive, says Prof Katie Bailey from the University of Sussex.

We are witnessing a groundswell of interest in meaningful work at the moment. More and more is being written about it, and I’ve run workshops and events where I’ve been overwhelmed by people’s enthusiasm to know more about meaningful work, and where to find it.

I think in part we can trace this back to a growing disenchantment with the status quo. The business models that have emerged in recent times have let us down, with their focus on short-term financial performance at the expense of the employee and other stakeholders.

The rise of the “gig economy” is pushing the responsibility of managing careers away from the employer and over to the employee, raising levels of uncertainty and instability.

We already spend a significant proportion of our waking hours at work and, thanks to rising retirement ages, we are going to be doing it for even longer. And people are increasingly asking: what does it all mean?

Many philosophers say that, as human beings, we are by nature meaning-makers. Research has often shown that most people would choose to carry on working even if they won the lottery and so didn’t need the income. When you first meet someone, you tend to ask them, “what do you do?”, in other words, “what work do you do?”

Work plays a central role in shaping our identities and how we see ourselves, and it is perhaps inevitable that we will turn to our work as a source of meaningfulness.

Getting in the way

Unfortunately, it is often the case that employers get in the way of this natural meaning-making process.

Our research has shown that employers can destroy the meaning people find in their work by failing to acknowledge or thank employees, giving them pointless and repetitive work, or by placing them at physical or emotional risk. Forcing people to work “against their values” also drives out meaningfulness, as do lack of voice and feeling marginalised.

Another barrier to meaningful work is, paradoxically, trying to impose meaningfulness on employees. In other words, telling your employees what they “should” find meaningful about their work.

The employer who introduces “fun games” that everyone has to join in, for example, may well be guilty of this. As might the employer who tells all its employees that their work really makes a difference to society, when everyone can see that the focus is just on the bottom line. Employees are very quick to spot hypocrisy and gaps between rhetoric and reality.

Another reason this top-down approach might not work is because meaning-making is such a personal thing. You and I might both work at a vet’s surgery, but I might find it meaningful because I love animals, and you might find it meaningful because you’re interested in medical advances.

Different strokes, different folks

We have found that when people talk about what makes their work meaningful, they talk about their life outside work, their families or friends, or their deeply-held values and beliefs, and how their work resonates with these.

They don’t just talk about the work itself, which makes meaningfulness very different from other attitudes such as job satisfaction or engagement.

Given the potential problems, it would be reasonable to ask why employers should worry about trying to create meaningful work.

However, the research tells us that when employees find their work meaningful, there are a lot positive outcomes including lower levels of stress, depression and intent to quit, and raised levels of satisfaction, happiness, engagement and performance.

We’ve suggested in our research that employers should focus on creating a “meaningfulness ecosystem” or an environment that enables employees to find their own meaning.

This would include an emphasis on the “big picture” of what the company stands for and what its contribution to the world is, so that employees can visualize how their particular role fits in.

Making meaning

Setting time aside for employees to reflect on their work and how it resonates with them as individuals is also important. People find meaning in unexpected ways; the retail workers we talked to found their work meaningful when they could chat to and help elderly customers, not when they made important sales.

Human connections such as these are often important for meaningfulness.

We can all find meaning in the work that we do, it is not just the preserve of an elite few. Street sweepers, shop assistants, artists, solicitors, nurses and stone masons all talked to us in our research about times their work was meaningful.

Employers have an important role to play in helping their employees to uncover this sense of meaning. If they do, then we will be able to create resonances across our work and personal lives to tap into what matters most to us as individuals, and our workplaces will be more humane as a result.

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