What Is Meaningful Work AND How To Make Work Meaningful?

meaningful humanity

I have been writing about meaningful work for a while now, but what is meaningful work? Dostoevsky said: "If one wanted to crush and destroy a man entirely, to mete out to him the most terrible punishment, all one would have to do would be to make him do work that was completely and utterly devoid of usefulness and meaning."

The research shows that while meaningful work has no universal definition, there are a few noticeable common themes:

  • autonomy and independence
  • sufficient wage
  • moral development
  • authentic connection to life's purpose
  • fulfillment
  • intrinsic motivation
  • personal responsibility
  • empowerment
  • self-expression
  • alignment with one's values, beliefs, and sense of self

Whether we think about it or not, everyone wants to do meaningful work. Meaningful work is highly motivational and intensely personal, leading to improved commitment, performance, and satisfaction. It may seem that meaningful work focuses on the individual, but most people who experience meaningful work view their work as a broader contribution to society. They want it to have an impact on other individuals, groups, and the wider environment.

It is easy to assume that people are aware of the meaningfulness of their work as they experience it, but that is not typically the case. Only when individuals have a chance to reflect do they see a connection between achievements and a fuller sense of life’s meaning. Meaningfulness is a retrospective act rather than a spontaneous contemporaneously experienced emotion.

Researchers at the University of Sussex in Brighton and the University of Greenwich in London summarized the organizational challenges of helping employees find meaningful work.

"These particular features of meaningful work suggest that the organizational task of helping people find meaning in their work is complex and profound, going far beyond the relative superficialities of satisfaction or engagement — and almost never related to one's employer or manager."

The research findings revealed factors that destroy the sense of meaningfulness in one's work.

  1. Disconnecting people from their values through an intense organizational focus on the bottom line
  2. Taking employees for granted and not recognizing them for hard work
  3. Assigning people pointless work and not getting them involved in those decisions
  4. Treating employees unfairly and unjustly
  5. Disempowering people by overriding their judgment over how they should do their work
  6. Putting employees at unnecessary physical or emotional risk

Employees find meaningful work for themselves, but for that to happen, organizations have to create a work environment that encourages people to thrive. Organizations can foster a sense of meaningfulness for their employees by doing the following:

  1. Formulate the organization's purpose in a way that focuses on the company's positive contribution to the wider society or the environment
  2. Demonstrate to the employees how their jobs fit with the organization's broader purpose
  3. Encourage people to understand that while certain parts of their jobs are tedious and repetitive, those tasks contribute to the organization's purpose
  4. Create a supportive, respectful, and inclusive work environment where employees can communicate a sense of shared values and belonging and realize how their work has a positive impact on others.

Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden concluded by saying: "In experiencing work as meaningful, we cease to be workers or employees and relate as human beings, reaching out in a bond of common humanity to others."

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