“Few things in life are easy and worth doing”: the relationships between meaningful work and stress
Updated: 24 hours ago
Meaningful work is on the rise. More and more of us are seeking meaning from and within our careers. We want to feel satisfaction in what we do, but also a sense that it matters in some bigger way. As a result, we’re prepared to reconsider what we do and how we do it, and even accept lower salaries in return. But are there any potential downsides of meaningful work? If so, what are they, and what can we do about them?
This article/blog summarises research conducted by myself and Adam Davidson into the relationships between meaningful work and stress. If you’re a science fan, you can also find the published research article in Frontiers in Psychology.
The many benefits of meaningful work
Why has meaningful work become more popular? For some people, the existential shock caused by the Covid-19 pandemic acted as a wake-up call, prompting them to think about what was meaningful – and meaningless – in their personal lives and careers. For others, experiencing meaning in their work was important long before 2020. Plus, as Generation Z makes up an increasing proportion of the workforce, the demand for meaningful work is only accelerating.
This is great: purpose and meaning are good for us. People that find their work meaningful are more satisfied with their life overall. They experience better general health and are less likely to experience mental health issues like depression. At work, experiencing meaning is equally powerful. When our work feels meaningful to us, we’re more engaged in it, and we perform better. We’re also more committed to our team and organisation, and much less likely to leave or take time off.
However, it’s not all rosy... Whilst meaningful work is becoming more popular, work-related stress remains persistently high. In a 2023 study, Gallup identified that 38% of UK employees experience significant stress linked to their jobs every single day. Based on my experience of coaching senior leaders and others, I’d expect the actual figure would be considerably higher in some sectors and roles.
Given the proven wellbeing benefits of meaningful work, it seems evident that meaning should be a useful tool to help manage and reduce work-related stress.
But what if it’s not that simple? Might the meaningfulness also be creating additional stress? If meaningful work is so good for us, why can it also feel so challenging?
My experiences of meaningful work and stress
These are questions I’ve been pondering for years. It started as a purely selfish consideration. It’s always been important to me that I found my work meaningful, and this has driven most of my career decisions to date. I’ve had the privilege of working for organisations that I’ve genuinely cared about, alongside colleagues that I’ve come to love as friends, and on behalf of people (customers, end-users, <insert your preferred term here>) that were hugely deserving.
All that said, I’ve also experienced a considerable amount of stress related to my work over my career. As a result, being near-permanently stressed became my default position for almost 15 years, with knock-on impacts for my sleep, physical health, and happiness.
So, when I got the chance to conduct my own research as part of my MSc in Applied Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology, it was a no-brainer: I wanted to better understand the relationships between meaningful work and stress.
I designed a study using a ‘social constructivist grounded theory’ approach:
Social constructivist, because I believe that we construct this type of knowledge through conversations and interactions, which are inherently subjective; and
Grounded theory, because it’s a qualitative research method through which data is analysed ‘bottom-up’ without pre-conceived hypotheses. And also, because Brené Brown is a grounded theory researcher, and I’m a bit of a Brené fan-girl.
In April 2022, with the much-appreciated support of my research supervisor Adam Davidson, I received approval from the university’s ethics board. I then set about recruiting my participants: seventeen people (11 women, 6 men), between the ages of 34 to early-60s, all of whom found their work both meaningful and stressful. They represented a range of sectors and occupations, including a healthcare assistant, a GP, an architect, a civil servant, plus those working at various levels in the education, energy, housing, and policing sectors, among others.
Each participant was interviewed for around an hour, in which we explored their experiences and perspectives of:
a) Meaningful work, including:
what it means to them
what creates or contributes to the meaningfulness, and what (if anything) detracts
whether their sense of meaningfulness has changed over time, and
the consequences (positive and negative) of finding their work meaningful
b) Work-related stress, including
what causes them stress at work
how that impacts their work and personal life, and
how they manage work-related stress.
c) Any relationships between the meaningfulness and the stress, for example, ways in which:
the work’s sense of meaningfulness might impact on their stress (whether positively or negatively, consistently or occasionally, significantly or insignificantly)
the stress might impact the meaningfulness, and / or
the meaningfulness and stress felt unconnected.
So, what were the findings?
The findings from the study indicate that work-related meaningfulness and stress appear to go “hand in hand”, in the words of one participant. Meaning and stress are inherently connected, with complex relationships that go both ways.
In other words:
meaningfulness impacts on stress (in ways that both help and hinder), and
stress impacts on meaningfulness (again, both positively and negatively).
Breaking this down further, we identified six specific themes from the stories and experiences of the participants. These are summarised here, and then detailed below:
1) Caring deeply: meaningfulness at work can create or exacerbate stress
2) A bottomless pit: stress is particularly intense when work is meaningful and there’s a never-ending amount to do, and this impacts on wider personal and home life
3) Stress alleviation: in some circumstances, meaningfulness can help to alleviate work-related stress, and make it easier to tolerate
4) Reinforcing meaningfulness: stress can reemphasise and reinforce the meaningfulness, reminding us why we’re doing it
5) Reducing meaningfulness: in other circumstances, stress can reduce the meaningfulness, causing us to question if the pressure is really worth it
6) Inextricably linked: depending on your perspective, work meaningfulness and stress can even feel “one and the same”
Exploring the 6 key themes
1) Caring deeply
A significant majority of participants (77%) reported that the meaningfulness they feel for their work leads them to care deeply about it, which in turn can create or intensify work-related stress.
Why might this happen? Participants described how the passion they have for their work can cause them to have high expectations and set higher standards for themselves and others. If these expectations and standards aren’t met (for whatever reason), it can cause significant frustration about the missed potential.
Example quotes from participants:
“The healthy side [of finding work meaningful] is absolute professional pride in wanting to deliver the very best care that you can. And the unhealthy side is doing that at almost any cost”
“It’d be dead easy to sit back and go, ‘Oh well, never mind’… But no, I want to deliver because I know the difference it’s going to make. I know how powerful it’s going to be”
“With the highs come the lows… and if you’re really passionate you tend to then get really, really frustrated”
“You feel a much greater need to succeed, and not let people down”
2) A bottomless pit
Many participants described heavy workloads, and how there was always more work to do. Indeed, 65% of them felt that the combination of their work being (a) meaningful and (b) seemingly never-ending, created additional stress.
For many of us, working long hours is pretty normal. And when you find your work deeply meaningful, it can be even harder to know when to draw the line. Plus, modern technology and an ‘always on’ culture makes this even harder. Participants described how – despite often feeling tired or worn out – the meaningfulness they experience in their work makes them less likely to limit or stop working additional hours. This can have a significant impact on people’s personal lives, reducing time with family and friends, preventing people from exercising or doing hobbies, and affecting personal relationships.
As a result, a heavy – but meaningful – workload further compound work-related stressors.
“You could just work 24 hours a day and never sleep”
“The fact that it’s meaningful and a bottomless pit makes it much more difficult to get the balance right”
“I don't have enough energy for the other things that are important… my husband and friends and family”
“[I wasn’t] seeing my wife, not seeing the children”
3) Stress alleviation
In apparent contrast to the finding that meaningfulness can create stress, 65% of participants also reported that experiencing their work as meaningful helped them to tolerate and manage their work-related stress.
Generally, this seemed to be because they accepted that the stress was in service of the important outcomes of their work, which they prized deeply. The meaningfulness enabled them to keep going, stay motivated, and tolerate challenging circumstances, highlighting meaning’s usefulness as a coping strategy.
“I can cope with a lot more stress if I can see that I’m adding value, whereas if it’s just stress for the sake of stress then I find it a lot harder to deal with”
“Even though I worked incredibly hard for that finite time-period [during the height of Covid], I didn’t feel particularly stressed or burned out, because I knew what I was doing was so important and meaningful”.
“It’s easier to get out of those ruts when you know you’re doing something to try and help someone have a better life”
“It [meaningfulness] makes even the very very hard days worthwhile”
4) Reinforcing meaningfulness
When we looked at the impact of stress on meaningfulness, some participants (41%) described how experiencing stress actually helped to re-emphasise and reinforce the meaningfulness of their work. They attributed this to the stressful situations reminding them of what they’re working towards and helping the outcomes of their work feel more tangible (even if hard-fought).
“When things are particularly hard, you’re reminded why you’re doing it”.
[When talking about stressful situations at work] “I think it just makes it more real. It makes me realise how important the role is, even more so”
“I suppose in my brain there's a positive reinforcement thing that anything I'm stressing about is super important… so it probably does reinforce the meaningfulness”
“The more challenges you face with a client, the more meaningful it is when it’s done”
5) Reducing meaningfulness
However for some (35%), stress also had the impact of reducing the meaningfulness they experience. Stressors related to job insecurity, poorly handled organisational change and challenging relationships were mentioned as particular causes of stress leading to reduced meaningfulness.
“You still feel like it’s important, but it’s like… why are you bothering with it? Because it feels like you’re not getting on or making progress. And I think that can be quite hard work”
“I think when I was most disillusioned, when I really questioned my place, was when my team just got moved from one place to another without being consulted”
“I suppose when I was really ready to resign and say that’s it, that would have been a reaction to it just all being too much. And it was because I'm just not finding any meaning”
6) Inextricably linked
What was particularly interesting was that, in many cases, participants experienced both helpful and unhelpful relationships between meaningfulness and stress, simultaneously.
9 participants reported that caring deeply about their work created or exacerbated stress, and that meaningfulness helped to alleviate stress, and
3 participants reported that stress can both reinforce the meaningfulness they experience, and reduce it.
Whilst these statements might feel contradictory, it helped shine a light on the view that meaningfulness and stress are inextricably linked, such that one can’t exist without the other. This was neatly summarised by one participant with a phrase his late father had regularly used: “few things in life are easy and worth doing”. Indeed, this became the overall title of the research, as it so beautifully captured the complexity of the relationships.
Meaningfulness and stress were described as going “hand in hand”, and also more proactively “egg[ing] each other on”
“Sometimes work is incredibly difficult and horrible and frustrating. But because we’re doing some good, I do it. And I enjoy doing it”
“I feel like you need to go through those conflicts to feel like you’ve delivered something meaningful… Look what I achieved, despite all the odds”
“If it wasn’t stressful, it wouldn’t be meaningful to me…. It’s that challenge, it’s that buzz, it’s that rush that’s caused by the stress… If it wasn’t for that, you wouldn’t get the meaningfulness”
So, what does this mean in practice?
This research challenges the commonly held view that meaningful work is an unequivocally good thing, in all circumstances. Instead, the research helps us see that – whilst there remain huge benefits in finding our work meaningful – we should also be aware of some potential ‘dark sides’, including implications for stress. Whilst this might feel paradoxical given meaningful work’s benefits for wellbeing, it really just reflects the nuances and complexity of life: few things are ever purely ‘good’ or purely ‘bad’.
Overall, my conclusion is that meaningful work is still very much beneficial. And, as a coach and positive psychologist, I’m going to continue to support my clients towards finding greater meaning in their work, whatever that looks like for them.
I believe there’s unlikely to be a ‘Goldilocks’ amount of meaning at work (not too much, not too little, just right!). Instead, we each need to find the right blend for ourselves, and that’s likely to vary over time.
To get the most from meaningful work, I suggest that we each need to bring our attention to the following questions:
What’s meaningful about my work at the moment?
Do any aspects feel meaningless? If so, how might I dial up meaning elsewhere to compensate?
Is the meaningfulness that I’m experiencing creating any stress, tension or other unintended consequences?
If so, in what ways? And how can I stay aware of these impacts, or work to reduce them?
For me, I have been bringing this into my coaching and training by helping people identify and explore their personal relationships between the meaning and stress they experience in different circumstances, and also supporting them to develop techniques to get – and maintain – the right ‘blend’ for them. I am also developing a wider concept and coaching offer around Career Crafting, in which we can develop meaningful work lives over the long-term, mindful of the possible ‘dark sides’ and ready to manage them.
As more and more people seek greater meaningfulness in their work, and as organisations increasingly start to think about how they can help their people to find that meaning, it’s even more important that we have a nuanced understanding of the complexities and paradoxes of meaningful work.
It’s not always straight forward to do, but – as we’ve seen here – “few things in life are easy and worth doing”.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic, and any stories and experiences you want to share; please do get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org or by Linkedin DM. Or, to read the full research, please visit Frontiers in Psychology