Meaning matters


After reading a piece in the most recent issue of the APA’s Monitor the other day (More Than Job Satisfaction), I asked my five-year-old son if he knows what I do for work. I do a lot of work from home, so he witnesses me in action a fair bit. I rather expected he would say something like, “You work on the computer” or “You talk on the phone,” or maybe even “You write stuff.” But what he said was: “You help people be happier and work better” (he also added, unnecessarily in my opinion, that it would be way cooler if I were a fireman or a superhero).

What I actually do day-to-day does look a lot more like working on the computer and talking on the phone – administering surveys and other assessments, developing materials for offsites, writing these blog posts, talking to clients. But what his statement revealed to me is that even as his tender age he has picked up on the fact that I love what I do because these tasks have greater meaning to me – they fulfill a higher purpose, to help people and their organizations develop and thrive. Perhaps it also reveals that our tendency to look for meaning in behavior is innate, or at the least starts at a young age.

Meaning is becoming mainstream, because research is beginning to back up what we all know in our hearts – that caring about your work matters. More people and companies and publications are showing a growing interest in the link between employee engagement and organizational success. According to Gallup’s most recent State of the American Workplace, just 30% of the US workforce is engaged, which means 70% are not engaged or are actively disengaged.  This is a problem, because actively disengaged employees are more likely to commit theft, negatively impact other employees and customers, and miss work more often – to the tune of $450-550 billion per year. The flip side, however, is that companies who rank in the top 25% for employee engagement have higher productivity and profitability compared to lower-ranking companies.

An important correlate of engagement is believing that what you do matters, that your work has meaning beyond the mere execution of tasks. In their review On the Meaning of Work, Brent Rosso and his colleagues report that “finding meaning in one’s work has been shown to increase motivation, engagement, empowerment, career development, job satisfaction, individual performance and personal fulfillment, and to decrease absenteeism and stress.” At a purely personal level, meaningful work is also associated with life satisfaction, overall wellbeing, and decreased depression.

So what does meaningful work look like? A recently developed tool for measuring meaning in work has three components –  feeling like work has some purpose (I’m not laying bricks, I’m building homes), feeling like work feeds into the meaning of one’s life as a whole (I’m taking care of my family), or benefitting a greater good (I’m supporting my community). As Kathryn Britton describes in this article, there is meaning in work (what I do, or my role at work) and meaning at work (people depend on me, or my membership with the organization). These impact our sense of identity, which drives meaning and answers the question, Why am I here? People also find meaning and value in their work when it allows them to leverage and be rewarded for their unique contributions and talents.

Even if we aren’t working at a hospice or an environmental commission, there is a lot we can do as individuals to foster a sense of meaning in our work.  As I talked about in a prior post, “Getting engaged,” we can change the way we do our jobs by seeking out new roles or tasks or new ways of accomplishing them, we can change the way we feel about our jobs by developing new or better relationships with the people we work with, and we can even simply change the way we think about our jobs, by linking it to bigger-picture goals, whether they be life goals or organizational goals.

From an organizational perspective, this is where the value and importance of mission and vision really come into play. Through a clearly articulated, broadly communicated, and fully “lived” mission and vision, organizational leaders have the opportunity to create alignment between the broader purpose of the organization and the individual quest for purpose and meaning, and by so doing really drive engagement and success. As Simon Sinek clearly demonstrates in this TedTalk, meaning and purpose matters to your employees AND to customers, and therefore, to your success.

“Deprived of meaningful work, men and women lose their reason for existence; they go stark, raving mad.” –Fyodor Dostoevsky