What makes your work meaningful?

Workers undertaking meaningful work experience better health, greater levels of job satisfaction and more satisfying relationships with peers compared with those who lack meaning in their lives and work. The chance to undertake meaningful work is therefore something to which we all should aspire and which organisations need to understand.  However, there is very little research into what makes work meaningful.

For their article, ‘What makes work meaningful – or meaningless?’ authors Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden undertook an interview-based study involving 135 individuals in 10 very different occupations. Their aim was to find out which factors foster meaningfulness in work and which destroy it. Their research is very much in line with what I found when undertaking my MSc dissertation and which was later published.

Bailey and Madden found that meaningfulness is different from other work-related attitudes such as engagement, in that meaningfulness tends to be intensely personal and individual. The authors discovered five features of meaningfulness at work: (1) it is often self-transcendent, in the sense that individuals tend to experience their work as meaningful when it has an impact on others, (2) it can be associated with poignant or difficult experiences, not just happy ones, (3) the experience of meaningfulness at work tends to be episodic rather than sustained, (4) it is often only appreciated upon reflection rather than in the moment, and (5) it is personal, and managers and organizations matter relatively little in individuals’ experience of meaningfulness.

In my coaching programme based on the science of positive psychology, I have developed a simple tool to help with (3), (4) and (5) above. This Activity Monitor helps individuals reflect upon their previous week at work and identify aspects of their work which are Pleasurable, Engaging (experiencing Flow), Meaningful or other. It’s a simple yet effective way to reflect upon your week and to understand, at a very personal level, which aspects of your life (both inside and outside of work) bring most meaning to you.

In my experience undertaking this exercise over a typical working week results in profound change. Try it and let me know what impact it has on you.