Workplace confidence

How to make your work meaningful

We all search for meaning in life. No-one wants to experience a desolate lack of connection and we all seek meaning, albeit in different ways, whether we be atheists, Taoists, or flautists. Since we spend a good deal of our time at “work” it will help if we can find meaning in that work environment and a new study has shown what a meaningful job looks like as well as how your management team can play a role in creating that meaning.

For the new study, researchers from the University of Sussex and University of Greenwich interviewed people working in very different occupations including garbage collectors and priests. The subjects were asked about incidents or times when they found their work to be meaningful and, conversely, times when they asked themselves, “What’s the point of doing this job?”

They found that what managers can do to create meaning is limited but what they can do create meaninglessness is significant. So, as far as managers or bosses go, the best they can as far as making work meaningful for employees is make sure they don’t make it lacking in meaning. More interesting from this research though is what the researchers discovered regarding the qualities that make meaningful work.

The researchers identified that the five qualities of meaningful work is that it is:

1. Self-transcendent. People experience their work as meaningful when it matters to others more than to themselves.

2. Poignant. Meaning was not only associated with joy and happiness but also with moments of mixed, uncomfortable or even painful feelings.

3. Episodic. A sense of meaning does not occur in a sustained way but instead arises in episodes. No-one is able to find meaning consistently but instead an awareness that work is meaningful is felt at key times.

4. Reflective. People rarely experience meaning in the moment but instead in retrospect and on reflection when they can see their completed work and make connections between what they have done and a wider sense of meaning in life.

5. Personal Work feels meaningful when it is understood in the context beyond work in terms of wider life experiences.

In the end, meaning matters and organisations need to consider how meaningful work life is for people. As the researchers observed, there is an ethical responsibility for companies to bridge the gap between work and personal life. Managers might not make meaning but they can let it grow. Without meaning an organisation is a transient aggregation of individuals but with meaning an organisation can become a cohesive whole.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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