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Katie Bailey

University of Sussex

Professor of Management

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Managing the pitfalls of meaningful work

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Today’s shifting social and economic landscape has encouraged a focus on conscious capitalism and a move away from short-term profits alone to take into account the wider interests of a range of different stakeholders.

From the employee perspective has come a renewed interest in creating jobs that are meaningful and full of purpose. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that this will create a win-win situation for employer and employee, but recent research suggests there are a number of pitfalls for employers who want to foster meaningful work.

What is meaningful work?

Meaningful work is work that meets certain objective criteria, eg, it is freely entered into, it is work that is of a reasonable quality, and it allows the worker a degree of autonomy and choice.

It is also work that meets at least minimum standards of appropriate terms and conditions. In other words, people who are trafficked, forced into work, or who are paid below the minimum wage cannot be said to have meaningful work.

On the other hand, meaningful work also has to be subjectively meaningful to the individual. I might find one type of work meaningful, whereas you might not, whatever the objective standards of that work.

Work is meaningful when you can see that:

  • What you do matters or makes a difference in some way, such as helping others in times of need
  • You feel you are doing a good job
  • You find the work fulfilling and it enables you to grow.

Benefits of meaningful work

Research has shown that meaningful work is associated with a host of beneficial outcomes, including:

  • High levels of engagement, job satisfaction, wellbeing and happiness
  • Low levels of absenteeism, stress, depression and intention to quit

There are definite benefits for both employers and employees in creating jobs that are meaningful.

Meaningfulness is personal

For employers eager to manage meaningful work, though, there are some important pitfalls.

People find meaningfulness for themselves, you cannot mandate it. If I tried to tell you what you should or should not find meaningful about your work, you are not very likely to listen!

This is because meaningful work is intensely personal; when people talk about what is meaningful to them, they talk about their family, their friends, their life outside work, not just about the job.  

People find meaningfulness for themselves, you cannot mandate it.

One entrepreneur who took part in our research said she was motivated to start her business to make her grandfather proud, and she found her work meaningful when she thought about how he would have felt now her business is a success.

Meaningfulness is not a constant state

Another pitfall occurs because meaningfulness is episodic, in other words, people do not find their work consistently meaningful, day in, day out. It would probably be exhausting if they did. Something happens that triggers the experience of meaningfulness.

This could be finishing a job and looking back with pride and satisfaction over what you have done, as was the case for the street sweepers we talked to. Or it could be experiencing that part of your job that makes it all worthwhile. For many of the nurses we talked to, this meant helping and comforting very sick patients at the end of their lives.

Finally, there is the risk of forcing a culture where employees feel obliged to pretend their work is meaningful in order to avoid negative consequences, eg. failing to get a pay rise because they do not ‘fit in’, or to put themselves in a favourable position. In our recent research, we’ve called this ‘existential labour’. As the term suggests, pretending to find your work meaningful when you really do not is soul-destroying hard work.

There is the risk of forcing a culture where employees feel obliged to pretend their work is meaningful in order to avoid negative consequences

What can employers do?

Our research has shown that employers can, at times unwittingly, do more to destroy meaningfulness than to create it. The main thing employers need to be aware of is that human beings naturally seek out the meaning in everything they do, they are ‘meaning-makers’.

Whether we try to manage the situation or not, employees will be constantly scanning their environment to gather clues concerning what their work means and deciding how to react.

The key actions to ensure a meaningful work setting are:

  1. Enable individuals to see the outcomes of their work either through direct contact with clients or service users, or more creatively. One refuse collection firm posted images of recycled products on the side of their refuse carts so employees could see how they contribute to the environment.
  2. Foster a positive and collegial work environment. People often find meaning in their work through a sense of camaraderie and some banter with their colleagues.
  3. Look at job design, which often gets forgotten. Think about what it is that employees are doing, how they are spending their time. Do they get opportunities to do what matters most to them?
  4. Talk to employees about what makes their work meaningful to them as individuals, and create spaces where people can share ideas about the value of their work.
  5. Above all, do not try to tell people what is meaningful about their work, or make them feel obliged to buy into a corporate ‘story’ about meaning. People will respond most naturally and positively when they can link their work to what resonates with them as individual human beings.

2 Responses

  1. It’s called work for a reason
    It’s called work for a reason. And people have to be paid to do it for a reason.

    Have you ever run a business? Built it up from the ground and made it make money?

    I’d be interested to hear how you treated any employees you might have had. Did you check that everything in their daily work was interesting, personally challenging, and somehow meaningful to that person? Or did you just hand out the tasks that needed doing and expect people to get on with them because that was their job?

    Did you get skilled people to come and work for you by offering them meaningful work, or a meaningful salary? Yes, there comes a point where merely paying more money does not make a job more rewarding, but so many people in the workplace do not operate above the salary level where that can happen.

    It must be amazing to have; not just a job, not even a career, but a calling. Something you value and love to the point where you’d probably find a way to do it even if somebody wasn’t paying you to do it. Something you couldn’t imagine not doing, and the fact that someone’s prepared to pay you to do it is just icing on the cake. If that’s you, then yay you! I’m delighted for you, although I can’t imagine you care about my opinion or anyone else’s.

    For the rest of us, who have to pay the bills, finding meaning in our work isn’t an essential. It’s not a question I’ve ever asked or been asked at interview. It doesn’t come up in goal discussions, or 1-1s. All that does is success or failure – did I achieve what I set out to do or was assigned to do?

    I’m quite fortunate – I do find a lot of meaning in my work. But I know it wouldn’t matter to my employer if I didn’t.

  2. Thanks for sharing an
    Thanks for sharing an interesting read Katie. As you mentioned, the fact that meaningful work is highly subjective makes it very difficult to determine meaningful work for individuals. I think the best way to decipher the “meaning potential” is by asking qualifying questions at the interview stage. Finding out what makes that person tick should provide a good barometer for them being a good fit for a particular role. So this requires a different approach to interviews, but done effectively over a period of time I believe it can have a significant impact on an organisation.

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Katie Bailey

Professor of Management

Read more from Katie Bailey
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