Katie Bailey is Professor of Management at the University of Sussex. Her research focuses on what makes work meaningful or meaningless, and she runs the website ‘Meaningful Work’. In this article, Katie considers why meaningful work matters, and what leaders can do to support their employees through the process of finding meaningful work.
Everyone would like their work to be meaningful, purposeful and worthwhile. According to philosophers, human beings have an innate drive to find meaning in what they do. Given that we spend so much of our time at work, our jobs are a prime site for experiencing meaningfulness. Research has shown that when we find our work meaningful, we experience a host of positive benefits including increased job satisfaction and fulfilment, a sense of connection with those around us, improved engagement, and lower levels of stress and depression.
Although meaningfulness is very important to us as individuals, sadly many employers and line managers do more to destroy people’s sense of meaningfulness than they do to nurture and support it. Yet, creating an environment where employees can find meaning in their work is potentially one of the greatest contributions that leaders can make to improve their employees’ lives.
Things that some leaders do that undermine meaningfulness include:
Promoting a set of values or a culture that claims to be one thing but in fact is something else. A prime example of this would be a company that ostensibly values diversity and inclusion but where all the senior management team are white males.
Treating employees unfairly
If people feel that they can’t trust their leaders to be fair, open and equitable, then they are unlikely to find much meaning in their work.
Taking people away from the work they want to do, and are trained to do
Over time, jobs can shift away from their core purpose as people get promoted or move sideways into other roles. Due to this drift, employees can find themselves doing less and less of the work they really find worthwhile and rewarding, and more of the work they find dull and meaningless.
Lack of voice
In our research, lack of voice emerged as a prime driver of meaninglessness. Examples include nurses who were required by senior staff to perform procedures they knew were incorrect, and shop assistants who were told by head office to reorganise the store in a way they knew would deter customers.
What our research shows is that line managers and organisations are often implicated at times people find their work meaningless. Interestingly, this is not so much the case at times people find their work meaningful. Talking to people, it becomes clear that meaningfulness is something that we find for ourselves in the work we do, but that meaninglessness usually emerges in response to negative experiences in the workplace.
Where do we find meaningfulness in our work?
Our research shows that everyone finds their work meaningful some of the time, but no-one finds it meaningful all the time. It might be exhausting if they did! Generally, people find meaningfulness in the following ways:
They feel they are contributing to others
This may include helping others in need, supporting others to grow, or making the world a better place. These may sound idealistic, but most jobs can offer at least some opportunities to do this. Refuse collectors talked about their contribution to a clean and safe environment. Shop assistants talked about providing companionship to elderly customers. Actors and musicians talked about bringing emotional enrichment to audiences.
They are challenged in some way
Meaningful work is not easy work. It is work that stretches the individual, is difficult to achieve, or, in some cases, emotionally charged. Nurses talked about using their professional expertise to help very ill patients. Priests talked about providing comfort to bereaved families. Academics talked about years of painstaking research that finally bore fruit.
They can find a resonance between their work and something that matters to them personally
What is particularly interesting about meaningful work is that people often talk about their work in the wider context of their life. One entrepreneur baker talked about setting up her business to make her grandfather, who was also a baker, proud. A solicitor talked about finding his work meaningful when friends or family recommended him to others. A soldier talked about how she found her work meaningful during the traditional ‘dining out’ ceremony when her family were present to hear about her achievements in the army.
It is in large part because of this highly personal and individual dimension of meaningfulness that it is elusive, hard to manage, and impossible to generalise. Organisations that do best at managing meaningfulness are those that create a safe space – or an ecosystem – that enables employees to find their own meaning, rather than imposing meaning on them.
Important factors for organisations to consider to enable employees to find their own meaning:
The organisation as a whole and what it stands for
What is the organisation’s purpose, what are its values, and how can these be shared in an authentic way throughout the organisation?
Relationships within the organisation or between employees and customers or clients
Meaningfulness often arises in the context of positive relationships that offer the opportunity for people to witness first-hand how they impact on others, or to experience camaraderie with their colleagues.
The jobs that people do
Together with the opportunities these offer for people to experience growth, challenge and development as well as contribute to the wider whole.
The individual tasks that people undertake within their job
Are people able to use their skills and talents, or are they being asked to do a disproportionate amount of ‘drudge’ work? Employees accept that, inevitably, there will be parts of their job that are not particularly rewarding (form-filling, bureaucracy and paperwork are most often mentioned!). However, when these parts become overwhelming, the balance is tipped towards meaninglessness.
In focusing on employees’ experience of meaningful work, it is important for leaders not to lose sight of their own meaningfulness. It’s a bit like putting your own life jacket on first before you can help others. Leaders who understand what makes their own work meaningful are best placed to support their employees to find meaning in theirs.
If you want to find ways of making your work more meaningful please get in touch to find out how I can help you. Christine Griffin, Executive Coach – firstname.lastname@example.org – +44 (0)7796 147127 – www.griffinity.co.uk.