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  • 29 Jul 2021

What makes work meaningful?

Claudia St. John, president of Affinity HR Group, discusses how to find meaning at work.

Claudia St. John, president of Affinity HR Group, discusses how to find meaning at work.

Ancient Greeks had a legend about a king named Sisyphus. A clever man, he earned himself a reputation as a trickster and managed to trick death twice. His behavior angered the gods and Zeus condemned him to an eternal punishment. He was sentenced to roll a boulder up a hill every day for eternity and every evening when he neared the top of the crest, the rock would roll back down to the bottom. His work, was in a word, meaningless. 

Many people across the globe today struggle to find meaning in their work. Global analytics firm Gallup found that ‘70 percent of Americans are disengaged at work’. This disengagement is not only frustrating personally but also has implications at a corporate level. The Brookings Institution, a Washington DC-based research organization, found that employees who find their work meaningful and are engaged at work ‘are less likely to call in sick and are more likely to participate in training to improve their skills’. 

MIT, in its Sloan Review, found that ‘meaningful work can be highly motivational, leading to improved performance, commitment and satisfaction.’ MIT also found that meaningfulness is ‘more important to employees than any other aspect of work, including pay and rewards, opportunities for promotion, or working conditions.’ Clearly meaning matters. But what really makes work meaningful?

Passion

Many have heard the phrase ‘if you do what you love, you will never work a day in your life’. Similarly, ‘follow your passion’ is increasingly common career advice, particularly with Millennials and Generation Z Is being passionate the key to finding meaningful work? 

Benjamin Todd, co-founder of 80,000 Hours, is dedicated to helping others figure out how to have a meaningful career. His research found that people who attempt to simply follow their passion as a career may not find meaning in what they do. ‘People who take this approach are ultimately no more likely to enjoy or excel at their jobs.’ 

Meaning comes from both how the workplace and the work that you do satisfies your own internal motivators and your ability to operate within your own natural behavior style

It circles back to meaning. According to Todd, ‘Even if you match your passion with your work and you are successful, you can still quite easily fail to have a fulfilling career. That's because you might not find the work meaningful.’ 

Claudia St. John, HR expert and president at Affinity HR Group, echoes that passion may not be all it is cracked up to be in a career. ‘It’s hard to find real passion in work,’ she says.

‘You have to really be passionate about something that you do, but I do not think you necessarily have to satisfy all of that passion at work. As long as your work can provide you with the opportunity to find passion in your life that really is the key.’

If passion is not the answer, it can be daunting to attempt find meaning in your career. ‘If there was a one size fits all for meaning, we would all be doing it,’ says St. John. ‘Meaning comes from both how the workplace and the work that you do satisfies your own internal motivators and your ability to operate within your own natural behavior style.

‘You may be doing something that is incredibly meaningful and satisfying your own personal goals and motivators, but if you are not paid well, or if your boss is a complete jerk, or if your hours are so long that they take you away from your family and the things that are important to you, then the work that you do is not sufficient to overcompensate for those things that are taking away from the meaning of your work.’

Some research suggests that work becomes more meaningful in retrospect and that it can be hard to acknowledge and appreciate meaning in the moment. ‘Everything becomes more meaningful in the retrospective,’ says St. John. ‘I often ask people to give up the retrospective look because it is filtered through a sentimentality that may or may not have existed in the moment.’

St. John says that as humans we tend to neglect the present, instead romanticizing the past or yearning for the future. ‘We tend to want to look for what is next, and we don't take the moment in our life and in our work to stop and say: “This is good, this is ok, and I'm happy with where I am”.’ 

Gazing at the past or longing for the future is one way to reduce meaning at work; unfortunately, it can be easier to destroy meaning than it can be to create it. ‘If something is lacking or missing in the workplace that is important to us,’ says St. John, ‘then that can turn the workplace into a demotivator.

‘Work can be meaningful, but it can also be deleterious and make us feel worse off as a result of the experience of being and working in that place.’ That is what workplaces want to avoid: creating an experience of dread for their employees around their work. 

Deadly sins

In terms of destroying meaning in the workplace, MIT found a list of ‘seven deadly sins’ of things companies do to dishearten their employees. The overarching theme originates with how employees are treated by their supervisors or bosses. 

The first no-no in terms of managing employees is disconnecting them from their personal values. ‘Although individuals did not talk much about value congruence as a promoter of meaningfulness,’ found MIT, ‘they often talked about a disconnect between their own values and those of their employer or work group as the major cause of a sense of futility and meaninglessness.’ This was the most common source people citied as contributing to a sense of meaninglessness at work. 

In a similar vein was having employees override their own since of judgement or right and wrong. ‘Quite often, a sense of meaninglessness was connected with a feeling of disempowerment or disenfranchisement over how work was done. When people felt they were not being listened to, that their opinions and experience did not count, or that they could not have a voice, then they were more likely to find their work meaningless.’

Another managing behavior to avoid is taking employees for granted. ‘Lack of recognition for hard work by organizational leaders was frequently cited as invoking a feeling of pointlessness,’ according to MIT. Something as simple as a heartfelt ‘thank you’ can go a long way in adding meaning to an employee’s job. Similarly, giving out pointless work is a way to ensure employees find their work tedious and lacking meaning. 

The final three deadly sins that destroy a sense of meaning are treating employees unfairly, disconnecting them from important sources of support in the workplace, and putting employees at risk of harm, both physical and emotional. Overall MIT found that ‘poor management was the top destroyer of meaningfulness’. If employers want to damage a sense of meaning at work for their employees, that is quite easily done through a rotten chain of command. As St. John says, ‘A fish rots from the head down.’

While bad management is more than enough to destroy meaning at work, inversely good management is not enough to instill a sense of meaning in work. Rather than a top-down approach to meaning, MIT found that ‘meaningfulness tended to be intensely personal and individual’. St. John’s words ring true: there is no one size fits all for meaning.

Organizations that hope to instill a sense of meaning in workers may be facing a bigger task than they realize. According to MIT, ‘The organizational task of helping people find meaning in their work is complex and profound, going far beyond the relative superficialities of satisfaction or engagement – and almost never related to one’s employer or manager.’

Impact 

While there is no one-stop shop for meaning in the workplace, MIT did find five things that can increase meaning at work. The first is that work is self-transcendent; those interviewed by MIT ‘did not just talk about themselves when they talked about meaningful work; they talked about the impact or relevance their work had for other individuals, groups, or the wider environment’.

The second element they noted is that meaning is not always found in positive experiences; it is found in the poignant moments that may be uncomfortable. Additionally, meaning is episodic; not every moment in a 9-5 workday can be filled with significance, rather it ebbs and flows throughout a day, week, month, or even whole career. MIT notes that ‘meaningful moments such as these were not forced or managed’. This is where leadership can only do so much. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink; similarly, you can create an environment that is conducive to meaningful work, but you can’t force meaning.  

You can create an environment that is conducive to meaningful work, but you can’t force meaning  

Reflection is also an element to meaning. MIT found that ‘meaningfulness was rarely experienced in the moment, but rather in retrospect.’ While St. John encourages people to give up the rose-colored glasses that may tint perceptions of the past, that fond recollection can contribute to a stronger sense of meaning in the workplace. Behavioral economist Dan Ariely calls this ‘the Ikea effect’. Essentially work is like Ikea furniture: you may not enjoy assembling it, but you like the furniture in the end because you made it. Similarly, in the actual process of work, an employee may not enjoy what they are doing, but they should be able to look at what they have accomplished and see its value and meaning. 

Lastly, meaning is personal. Feelings about work can be brushed off as passing emotions but truly meaningful work is ‘often understood by people not just in the context of their work but also in the wider context of their personal life experiences. We found that managers and even organizations actually mattered relatively little at these times,’ said MIT.

One thing managers can do to try to increase meaning is recognize the efforts of their staff. While meaning can’t be created from a manager and passed down to a worker, MIT found that ‘receiving praise, recognition, or acknowledgment from others mattered a great deal.’

Ariely echoes this: ‘Ignoring the performance of people is almost as bad as shredding their effort in front of their eyes. By simply looking at something someone has done, scanning it, and saying “uh-huh”, that seems to be quite sufficient to dramatically improve people's motivations.’

To make work meaningful St. John says that you must find ‘the elements in your work that satisfy those motivators, and those motivators are going to be different for everyone.’ 

She continues: ‘There are lots of different workplace motivators, you just need to know which one is yours and try to maximize those opportunities where you can.’

Pastoring and packaging 

Adam Peek is uniquely qualified to discuss what makes work meaningful. He has recognized his career motivators, the things that make work meaningful to him, and lived those out in two drastically different careers. Peek first worked as a pastor and now works in business development at Fortis Solutions Group. 

‘I really fell in love with packaging as my full-time job when I started to realize the thing that I loved about preaching and pastoring is the idea of sharing good news,’ says Peek. 

Passion is not a job, a sport, or a hobby. It is the full force of your attention and energy that you give to whatever is right in front of you

He was able to connect the concept of bringing good news out of the spiritual world and into the corporate world to find a sense of meaning in his work within the packaging industry. ‘The core tenants of my faith connected to what I'm doing in a very real way; it felt pretty natural.’

For Peek, the importance of his job comes from being able to think about his work on a larger scale: ‘If you are able to really connect with something more existential then that can help drive a lot of meaning into your job.’

However, work does not always have the luxury of connecting to a deeper meaning, as Peek readily acknowledges. ‘For some people, work is meaningful in and of itself because it is providing food for that week and I don't want to minimize that.’

Terri Trespicio, brand strategist and TEDx speaker, echoes Peek’s statement. She found her work meaningful because it gave her a sense of purpose when she was lacking direction. ‘I knew I had a reason to get up in the morning, get showered, leave the house, and people who were waiting for me when I got there. And I got a paycheck every two weeks. That is as good a reason to take a job as any,’ says Trespicio. 

She also cautions against using passion as a career guide. ‘Passion is not a job, a sport, or a hobby. It is the full force of your attention and energy that you give to whatever is right in front of you; if you are so busy looking for this passion you could miss opportunities that change your life.’

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