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Jess Annison

Jess Annison Coaching

Leadership Coach

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Two sides of the same coin? The complex links between meaningful work and stress

Meaningful work has never been more important, but there are dark sides to it that we cannot ignore. Here, leadership coach Jess Annison examines how we can help teams navigate the more troubling components of meaningful work, including the relationship with work-related stress.
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An increasing number of people are seeking greater meaning in what they do, and how they do it. For many, the existential shock caused by the Covid-19 pandemic acted as a wake-up call, prompting them to think about what was meaningful – and meaningless – in their personal lives and careers.

For others, experiencing meaning in their work was important long before 2020. Indeed, the demand for meaningful work is only accelerating as Millennials and Gen Z start to become the dominant generations in the workforce. 

What does meaningful work look like?

Meaningfulness is largely subjective, but organisations can and should play their part. Some organisations are supporting their people to engage in job crafting and re-design, or proactively use their strengths to boost meaningfulness, with great impact.

This is brilliant news. Purpose and meaning are beneficial in various ways. People that find their work meaningful are more engaged and perform better. They’re more committed to their team and organisation, and less likely to leave or be absent.

Finding work meaningful is no panacea.

Experiencing meaningful work is equally powerful for wellbeing. Someone who finds their work meaningful is likely to be more satisfied with their life overall. They experience better general health and are less likely to experience mental health issues like depression.

With many organisations looking to boost engagement and performance, whilst also better supporting employee wellbeing, it’s no wonder that meaningful work is in the spotlight.

Meaningful work is no silver bullet

However, finding work meaningful is no panacea. In fact, there’s a growing body of research into its potential ‘dark sides’, where meaningful work can become unhelpful or even harmful.

For example, having a deep sense of calling can be associated with overwork, accepting lower rates of pay, or even tolerating unsafe working conditions.

One of the less-expected characteristics of meaningful work is that it can feel poignant; driven as much by the challenging moments, as the purely joyful ones.

The link between meaningful work and stress

As someone who has experienced great meaning in my work, while also experiencing periods of considerable work-related stress approaching burnout, I became interested in the relationship between meaning and stress. 

Indeed, despite meaningful work’s increasing popularity over the last decade, the rate of work-related stress has remained persistently high: 38% of UK employees experience significant daily stress linked to their jobs, according to Gallup.

So, with my colleague Adam Davidson, I conducted research to explore the perspectives of people who find their work both deeply meaningful and stressful. The study’s findings were published in 2023 by Frontiers in Psychology.

Few things in life are easy and worth doing.

Six research findings on meaningful work and stress 

Our research indicates that meaningfulness and stress are inherently connected, with complex relationships that go both ways:

  • Meaningfulness impacts stress, in ways that both help and hinder employee wellbeing
  • Stress impacts meaningfulness; again, both positively and negatively

Breaking this down further, we identified six specific themes:

  1. Caring deeply: Meaningfulness at work can create or exacerbate stress
  2. A bottomless pit: Stress is particularly intense when work is meaningful and there’s a never-ending amount of it to do, impacting on wider personal and home life
  3. Stress alleviation: In some circumstances, meaningfulness can help to alleviate work-related stress, and make it easier to tolerate
  4. Reinforcing meaningfulness: Stress can reemphasise and reinforce the meaningfulness, reminding the person why they’re doing it
  5. Reducing meaningfulness: In other circumstances, stress can reduce the meaningfulness, causing the affected individual to question if the pressure is really worth it
  6. Inextricably linked: Depending on the individual’s perspective, work meaningfulness and stress can feel like “two sides of the same coin”; indeed, one participant summarised it with the phrase “few things in life are easy and worth doing”.

What are the implications for leaders and HR directors?

With engagement and wellbeing high on the agenda for many organisations and employees, this research provides a timely reminder of the interconnected and systemic nature of work.

The findings demonstrate that – whilst there remain huge benefits in meaningful work – organisational leaders and HR Directors should be aware of potential ‘dark sides’, including implications for employee stress. Whilst this might feel paradoxical, it simply reflects the complex tensions at play. 

You can help your people to navigate these tensions through the following key steps.

Boosting meaningfulness

First, support your people to use meaningfulness at work as a potential mechanism to help alleviate stress. Help them to experience and savour more meaning in their specific role and responsibilities through job crafting, facilitated team discussions about meaningfulness, and reflective practice.

Consider also how you can create organisational opportunities for greater meaningfulness beyond the confines of individuals’ job descriptions. For example, by participating in Employee Resource Groups or other networks, or by supporting the company’s environmental, social and governance (ESG) initiatives.

Acknowledge the downsides

Second, raise individuals’ awareness of the complex and bi-directional relationships between meaning and stress.

Avoid championing meaningful work as a ‘silver bullet’ for engagement or wellbeing. Instead, acknowledge the potential downsides that can arise when someone finds their work deeply meaningful.

Encourage and support people to talk about the meaningfulness they experience at work (in teams, or with their manager), including any unintended consequences such as frustration or stress.

Use powerful role modelling, by encouraging leaders to talk about their experiences of meaningful work, including where they’ve found the meaningfulness challenging or stressful.

Support adaptive coping strategies for stress

Finally, enable people to develop adaptive coping strategies for work-related stress, including any aspects which are exacerbated by meaningfulness.

Provide spaces for people to discuss the stressors they’re experiencing, and how they can work to avoid, reduce or cope with them.

Acknowledge micro-stressors too, those ubiquitous challenges and frustrations that can drain people’s resilience over time. 

The complexity of managing meaningful work 

As more and more people seek greater meaningfulness in their work, and as organisations increasingly seek to facilitate this meaning for their people, it’s even more important that we have a nuanced understanding of the complexities and paradoxes of meaningful work. 

It’s not always straightforward to do, but – as we’ve seen here – “few things in life are easy and worth doing”.

 Interested in this topic? Read How to cultivate a deep work culture.

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Jess Annison

Leadership Coach

Read more from Jess Annison
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