Meaningful work: what it is and why it matters
More and more people want to do meaningful work. A 2018 study found that 90% of people are willing to earn less money to do work they find meaningful, and for many the move towards meaningfulness has only accelerated as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Finding our work meaningful is good for us, and the organisations we work for. A review of empirical studies shows that meaningful work is associated with engagement, job satisfaction and work performance. Gallup’s research into wellbeing suggests that having meaningful work supports our financial stability, our physical health, our relationships and the extent to which we feel part of a community.
Meaningful work has always mattered to me. Much of my career has been in the civil service and education sector; throughout those roles I was surrounded by people that really believed in and cared for those organisations and what they stood for. We believed in the work we were doing, why it mattered so much, and how it helped the people we served - be they members of the public, students, members of diverse communities and others.
Of course, meaningful work is not the preserve of the public and third sectors. It can be found in all organisations and all sectors. It can also be found at all levels of an organisation. Remember the story of the NASA janitor who when asked what he was doing, responded that he was putting a man on the moon; or the stonemason who was building a cathedral, whilst his colleagues were simply making bricks.
But meaningful work is not guaranteed: it’s not a given, in any sector. It can take effort to find or create it.
And if we do have a strong sense of purpose in our work, we can’t take for granted that it will always be there; or that our colleagues and teams will experience it too. There are various ways in which meaningful work can become meaningless, with negative implications for us as individuals. Our personal purpose can change over time; we can become mis-aligned with or disconnected from an organisational purpose; or our priorities can change as a result of external developments (such as the Covid-19 pandemic).
Maintaining the meaning in our work can require ongoing effort.
So, what makes work meaningful?
Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden interviewed 135 people working in ten different occupations (professional and manual) to identify the qualities of meaningful work. Their work identified a number of factors that tended to be present if interviewees felt their work was meaningful. These included:
Achievement and pride in a “job well done”
A sense that they were fulfilling their potential and working to the best of their ability
A belief that their work was either interesting, creative and/or absorbing
Receiving praise, recognition or acknowledgement from others.
However, these factors weren’t sufficient in order for interviewees to truly feel their work was consistently meaningful. Bailey and Madden also identified five less tangible and more profound features of meaningful work:
1) Self-transcendent – work feels more meaningful when it matters to or has an impact on others, not just ourselves.
2) Poignant – meaningful work is never wholly joyful, nor easy. The meaning comes in the ‘downs’ (frustration, disappointment, challenge) as well as in the ‘ups’ (achievement, success, satisfaction).
3) Episodic – meaningfulness at work comes and goes rather than being a constant. People tend to experience occasional ‘peaks’ of meaningfulness in their work; these are usually spontaneous, highly memorable moments involving high levels of emotion and personal relevance.
4) Reflective – meaningfulness is rarely noticed in the moment, instead it is something we can best see when we look back and reflect on a period of time. Sometimes we can’t see how our personal purpose aligns to our work – but in retrospect we might be able to join up the dots.
5) Personal – work becomes more meaningful to us when we can connect it to the wider context of our life experiences, or to the experiences of those we love and care for.
I find these characteristics useful, including for helping clients (and myself) explore what’s going on when work feels less meaningful than we’d like for some reason. Bailey and Madden also found that meaningfulness at work is most likely to be found (or created) by the individual for themselves, rather than provided to them by their line managers, leaders or the organisation as a whole.
Future research into meaningful work
I’m starting a MSc research project into meaningful work shortly and am really looking forward to studying these themes in detail. I’ve plenty of questions, and I’m hoping to find some new and interesting answers! I’ll share further blogs on the subject as my research evolves.
Some current questions include:
What exactly is it about meaningful work that improves performance?
Is there a relationship between meaningfulness and autonomy at work?
What aspects of well-being are most improved by meaningful work?
How can people keep meaning in their work when their work is highly repetitive?
What’s the relationship between meaningful work and work-related stress?
How important are positive relationships in experiences of meaningful work?
How can leaders and organisations tread the fine line between helping – and hindering – their people to find meaning in their work?
How important is prosocial behaviour (helping others) in whether we find our work meaningful or not?
Is there a ‘dark side’ to meaningful work?
Do you find your work meaningful? Or are you looking to find more meaning in your work? Are you a leader who wants to help their team explore or increase the level of meaningfulness in their work?
If any of the above apply, I’d love to hear from you - please do get in touch.