The belief that we do meaningful work – that boosts our self-worth and is significant and compatible with our life’s values – has important consequences. A recent statistical analysis led by Purdue University researcher Blake Allan found that employees’ experience of doing meaningful work was strongly predictive of positive outcomes such as higher levels of job satisfaction, work commitment and even better physical health.
Most people work because they must make money; however, the notion of meaningful work requires that a job delivers something more fulfilling or important. Various teams have collected data showing that the experience of meaningful work likely requires the presence of at least three factors. I call these the ABC of meaningful work.
A is for (self-)actualisation or the degree to which we are able to realise and express ourselves through our work, which includes working on projects that tie in to our strengths, interests and passions. People typically report greater self-actualisation when they more strongly agree with statements such as ‘I feel free to express opinions’, ‘I have autonomy in my work’ and ‘I am treated with respect’.
Help yourself by reflecting and being honest about your values – the things that truly matter to you in life
B is for broader purpose or the extent to which we feel that our work serves something other than ourselves. This is measured by agreement with statements such as ‘I know my work makes a positive difference in the world’ and ‘I see a connection between my work and social good’. Broader purpose could relate to lofty goals such as enacting societal change, saving the planet or curing disease as well as smaller aspirations such as helping colleagues or making clients happy.
C is for consequence or the significance of our work. People feel that their job is more worthwhile when they agree with statements such as ‘I have discovered work that has a satisfying purpose’ and ‘I understand how my work contributes to my life’s meaning’.
The ABC of meaningful work has practical implications for leaders and human resources departments. Leaders communicating updates and vision statements often focus on organisational outcomes such as profit or shareholder value; however, these sorts of abstract goals are rarely inspiring to employees. Instead, discussion of issues such as greater freedoms within the workplace, collegiality within teams, and impact on customers and communities should be more rousing.
Recently, researchers led by Evgenia Lysova at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam recommended actions for leaders wishing to boost meaningfulness for employees: give people the resources they need to work well; provide personal and career development opportunities; and give employees at least small ways in which they can redefine their jobs to align with their individual needs, preferences and passions.
While these may be unsurprising recommendations, the reality is that there is often a mismatch between what leaders feel they provide and what employees say they receive. If you as a leader wish to boost meaningfulness among your employees, be sure to seek feedback on the extent to which you are taking these sorts of actions.
As an individual, help yourself by reflecting and being honest about your values – the things that truly matter to you in life. For example, if a value such as exercising your creativity, pursuing status or understanding technology is important to you, then seek out work that allows you to express such needs. Figure out what matters – even if it may not be what is expected of you by friends and family.
Also understand that meaningfulness tends to happen in episodes rather than continually. For instance, you may have a fleeting encounter with a colleague or client that makes you feel proud or positive, only to experience many hours or days of bureaucratic or otherwise less meaningful work. Accept that meaningful events tend to happen only sporadically rather than unreasonably expecting all of your work to be meaningful; then remind yourself of these occurrences to get through more challenging times.