Dreading work is common. That’s why weekends were invented. Ah, it’s the weekend! Oh, it’s Monday!! Or you have a new assignment or a new boss or a restructuring is going on or maybe you’re simply bored in your role. And you ask yourself the question: Why am I doing this? Does my work have any meaning?

The quest for “meaning at work” impacts every job productivity and retention metric. Consider this:

  • A survey of 12,000 employees across companies and industries found 50% lacked meaning and significance at work (see The Energy Project).
  • Employees who derive meaning from their work are 3 times as likely to stay with their organizations, have 1.7 times higher job satisfaction and 1.4 times more engagement with the company.
  • “Meaning at Work” impacts longevity and productivity positively more than other ‘job satisfiers’ including:
    • Learning and growth
    • Connection to a company’s mission, and
    • Work-life balance!

So what can companies do to make their employees feel that their work has meaning? The short-term answer seems to be — making employees feel happy. Terms of employment, lavish cafeterias are all answers to that question — make employees happy. However, this ‘happiness’ is temporary. The other is to make jobs more creative, less monotonous and facilitate a sense of meaning with a career path. But they are still answers to different questions. A more significant one is to give the job meaning and purpose. So what then in meaningful work?

What is the meaning of “meaning”?

Happiness isn’t the only ingredient to a life well-lived. Sometimes it’s not even a criteria. On the other hand ‘meaning’ is what causes people to go into unknown territories, motivates to do things out of the ordinary and causes personal growth and long-term satisfaction.

The trick is there is no one meaning of “meaning”. While it is important for each of us, it is also different for each of us. In the corporate context, one way to define meaning is through its negation: while companies are rarely good at finding “meaning” poor leadership is connected to a loss of meaning very quickly! There is a lot of research which shows meaning at work can be enhanced if employees have an opportunity to realistically reflect on their work & their contribution in the company and their respective lives. A few steps that are known to enhance this are (a) a culture of ethics (b) keeping high moral standards (c) executing on social responsibility that employees can support.

What can management do to give meaning to work?

The following steps allow management to engage with employees in a way that they find work life more meaningful:

  1. Discuss the meaning of the organization & their contribution to it: When employees understand the purpose of the organization and the positive impact it has on business and communities it allows them to be a part of something meaningful. This works best when employees have a clear view of the company’s goals, values and vision and plans for the future. Management should explain how every role impacts the greater organization. When employees see how their work contributes to that big picture it enhances their sense of meaning and purpose.
  2. Culture and community: Management should help their employees feel connected to communities or other employees that are impacted by the company’s products or services, so they understand clearly who it is that they are helping.
  3. Create a purpose: What is the difference between these 2 mission statements (a)“To be the most successful computer company in the world” and (b) “To be the most successful computer company for the world”? They point to a major meaning trap. When you say ‘for’, meaning comes from the impact of our work on others. People aren’t inspired by what they do, they are when they know they matter to others.

As an employee what can you do to give your work meaning?

The first thing to remember is that purpose is built, not found. Working with a sense of purpose requires thoughtfulness and practice. Here are some things you can do to find meaning at work:

  1. Become conscious that other people matter: If you have meaningful relationships at work you will find more meaning at work. A Gallup study found that the most engaged workers report having a best friend at work. Those reporting higher meaning are not necessarily those who are doing more, but those who have more meaningful relationships.
  2. Build social experiences: Purpose can be found in the simple things that connect colleagues. Sincerely asking a colleague how they are because you are genuinely interested not because it is small talk, will give meaning to both of you!
  3. Find what fuels you: ‘Meaning’ is not a vague idea it is tangible and you must look for it for yourself. If you value contribution find out how you can contribute to a group, or a customer or a community. If you value humour do you make colleagues, and customers smile?
  4. Don’t invest everything at work: Work gives meaning your life but it is only 1 of 4 parts that do —  faith, family, and community are the others. Life’s’ portfolio is a balance between these 4 things — faith in something bigger than each of us, your family that you nurture, your community that you impact, and success through meaningful work that creates value. Learn to focus on each in turn.
  5. Write a personal statement: One way to create more meaning is to define your purpose by making a personal declaration of purpose. It is a simple, succinct, jargon-free, and expressive. A statement about how you decide to live each and every day. For instance “I’ll always give my children the best opportunities they need”. Just stating it gives your life purpose even though nothing else in your job has changed. Now you know it has mean because it drives a purpose.

Purpose isn’t magic. It is something we must create. The fact is most of us don’t work for fun. For the most part, we work to earn money and to pay bills. Work in itself is a meaningful act of service — parents often work hard for their children, some work to support ageing parents. Focussing on what brings meaning to them will create meaning in your own life. With the right approach all jobs are meaningful.