Meaningful work. Part 1: Where can we find it?

Blog posts

29 Sep 2016

Professor Katie BaileyKatie Bailey, Professor of Management, University of Sussex

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Meaningfulness in work has been established as an important factor at work, influencing motivation, and improving performance and satisfaction. In this two-part blog, Katie Bailey, professor of management at the University of Sussex, outlines the findings of her recent research with Adrian Madden into what gives work meaning. In the first, she reveals where people find meaning in work and the role of organisations in this, and in the second she warns of the ways in which the meaning of work can be destroyed.

In a recent research study with my colleague Adrian Madden on meaningful work, one of the most striking findings was that the overwhelming majority of people seem to find meaning in at least some aspect of their job. In fact, 86% of people said that their jobs were meaningful. We interviewed people in such diverse occupations as priests, artists, writers, retail assistants, solicitors, nurses, soldiers, stonemasons, street sweepers, entrepreneurs and academics. What these disparate individuals had in common was that it was easier for them to think of examples of times when they found their work meaningful, than it was to think of times when it was meaningless. A sizeable minority of people across all these occupational groups even said that they had never found their work to be meaningless. This is quite a surprising finding, given that we hear so much about the increasing pace and precarious nature of work, alongside rising levels of disengagement and job dissatisfaction. Why is it that people are so readily able to find meaning in their work?

For some time, it has been suggested that humans have an innate drive to find positive meaning in their work. Studies have also shown that most people, given the choice, would not give up work if they won the lottery. Clearly, work plays an important role in people’s lives that goes beyond meeting their financial needs. However, although it might be quite easy to imagine how a nurse or a priest might find meaning in their work, how about those in other occupations? Where do street sweepers, solicitors, or retail assistants find their meaning?

First, it emerged as essential that the individual feels that they have done a good job and therefore experience a sense of achievement or pride. No one said to us, ‘Hey, I did a really poor job today, but it meant a lot to me.’ In other words, meaningfulness is bound up with feeling successful and accomplished. For example, the street sweepers talked of looking back along the street they had just cleaned and feeling they had made an important contribution to the neighbourhood. The stone masons explained that they found their work meaningful when they had successfully completed an intricate carving.

Second, in most cases it was important that the individual could see they had contributed to their team, other individuals, or a wider cause. Some talked of the importance of a sense of camaraderie or belonging, others talked of times they felt recognised or valued by clients or the public, whilst others gave examples of times when their work helped others at times of difficulty or enabled others to flourish. For instance, the entrepreneurs talked of how their businesses had enabled others to gain secure employment, and the retail workers talked of helping vulnerable elderly customers.

Finally, the times when people found their work meaningful were often intensely personal.  One entrepreneur had started her bakery business to make her grandfather proud of her. A hesitant author was emboldened to embrace her craft following a chance encounter with another customer in a stationery shop who assumed she was a writer. A soldier talked of the importance of her family being present at a dinner held to celebrate her military service.

Given the distinctive features of meaningful work, what can organisations do to raise levels of meaningfulness?  We found that the single most important thing is for an organisation to create a setting where people can find their own meaningfulness, rather than seeking to impose this. Making sure people can see the positive benefits of their work for others, and ensuring people appreciate how their work contributes to a greater whole, both emerged as key ingredients.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.

Meaningfulness at work