Making Your Work Meaningful

1 February 2019

In a recent article in the MIT Sloan Management Review, Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden (Bailey & Madden, 2016) reported on the findings of interviews with 135 employees working in 10 different types of jobs about what made their work meaningful. Previously research had told us that people care more about whether their work is meaningful than they do about a number of other factors, including their pay, and that the extent to which work is perceived as meaningful can have a large impact on productivity and wellbeing. However, very little research had been done to determine what steps could be taken to increase individuals’ perceptions of meaningfulness in their work. Bailey and Madden set out to fill this knowledge gap.

So are there methods of increasing how meaningful your employees find their work, and/or how meaningful you find your own work? Bailey and Madden’s results suggested that increasing meaningfulness is a very individual task, mostly affected by personal reflections and connections made between work and other aspects of life, but that poor leadership can easily decrease meaningfulness for workers. Hence maintaining meaningfulness in the workplace is a task for both individual employees and their employers.

There are a number of key characteristics of work that is perceived as meaningful, and also a number of factors likely to damage employees’ perceptions of meaning. These are:

Characteristics of meaningful work:

Self-transcendent: The employee feels that their work matters to other people, not only to them. Seeing or hearing how their efforts affect others helps employees to find their work meaningful.

Poignant: The work does not always just produce positive emotions, but mixed feelings or moving moments; the employee feels that they make a hard situation easier for someone, even though they cannot change it, or that they made a hard decision which was the right one. They experience challenges which they are able to overcome.

Episodic: Specific moments of high meaning occur that remind the individual why they do the work they do; these highs cannot be constantly maintained, but often arise when a significant task is completed or a visible difference is made.

Reflective: The significance of events that make an employee’s work meaningful is often only noticed by them when they think and talk about it later. Therefore, taking the time to reflect is important.

Personal: The person’s work makes sense in the context of the rest of their life and is connected to other aspects of their lives such as their family and people they know outside of work who benefit from what they do.

Factors damaging to perceptions of meaningfulness:

Disconnection from personal values: Employees want to feel that they are doing quality work and making a difference; meaningfulness suffers when they feel they are not able to because their employer is too focussed on other factors such as cost, profits, speed, fitting in more clients, or avoiding risks.

Lack of recognition or Appreciation: It may be difficult for employees to perceive their work as having a significant impact on others if their leaders take no notice of their successes or fail to let them know when their efforts are appreciated.

Pointless Tasks: Having to do tasks which they do not perceive as working towards their role’s main purpose or goal, such as paperwork or making changes they view as unnecessary, is likely to lead to employee’s viewing their work as less meaningful.

Unfairness: Unequal rewards for similar efforts, unexplained selection of others for promotion, bullying, or lack of extra reward for extra work.

Being overridden or disempowered when making a judgement: Employees take pride in finishing a product to a high standard, giving the most thorough service, and in being knowledgeable about the correct way to do their work; overriding their judgment to speed up completion of a product or demanding they do something a way they believe is incorrect devalues the employee’s skills and knowledge and can make their presence in their role seem unimportant.

Disconnection from supportive relationships: Relationships with co-workers and teams are often important to employees’ perceptions of meaningfulness. Forcing individuals to work in isolation is likely to reduce their perceptions of their work as meaningful.

Being at unnecessary risk: If individuals are at risk of any kind of harm; physical, emotional or psychological, which they are not expecting to be a part of their work, it is difficult for them to perceive their work as meaningful.

To assist employees to find meaning in their work, employers can:

You may perceive your work as more meaningful if you: