How to Make Work Meaningful

How to Make Work Meaningful
Photo by Adrien Olichon / Unsplash

I was struck by the findings in Gallup’s 2022 State of the Global Workplace Report:

With only 21% of employees engaged at work and 33% of employees thriving in their overall wellbeing, most would say that they don't find their work meaningful, don't think their lives are going well or don't feel hopeful about their future.

There are many reasons people feel this way: lack of autonomy, limited growth opportunities, a lack of social support, or not seeing the value of their contributions. Plus, people have lives outside work with other stressors.

Yet, when people do feel their work is meaningful, the benefits are numerous. A study by the Conference Board found that employees who found their work meaningful were more likely to report higher levels of job satisfaction, engagement, and commitment to their organization. Another study published in the Journal of Career Assessment found that individuals who perceived their work as meaningful had better mental health and well-being. And, lastly, a fascinating article from the Handbook of Eudaemonic Well-Being found that employees who felt their work was meaningful were more likely to stay with their organization, work harder, and be more productive.

There’s an interesting exercise I learned in high school about focus:

Draw a dot on the left side of a piece of paper and another dot on the right side of the paper. Place your pen on the left dot. While staring at the dot on the right, start drawing a line. You won’t be looking at the starting point. You’ll be focused on where you’re going. That’s how you draw a straight line.

While drawing a straight line may be useful skill, the real lesson is that it’s important to focus on where you’re going rather than where you’re at or where you’ve been if you want to be successful. In fact, a future focus in general may be part of the way we make our work more meaningful.

According to a research paper in Applied Psychology from 2022, proactive work behavior, or “individuals' self-initiated efforts to bring about future-oriented change in their work place” is the key driver to experiencing work as meaningful. This orientation works, the authors suggest, “because its focus on creating future impact permits individuals to transcend the present and derive meaning from a connection with the future.”

That means that if there is something a person wants to change about the company they work for, going after it could have a profound affect on their feelings toward work. It’s important to note the study states the initiatives should be “self-initiated,” not mandated to them. A person should feel intrinsically motivated to pursue it.

There is real power in this finding. Leaders should harness it to improve their team members’ wellbeing. And beyond the individual benefits, it can have compounding positive affects on companies.

So, how can leaders work with their teams to make their work more meaningful and improve their companies at the same time? Here’s my 5-step suggestion to put this idea to work:

  1. Invite your team into the conversations about challenges and problems you’re facing.
  2. Give them autonomy and space to contribute ideas and think through potential solutions. Take all ideas. This isn’t the time to edit or critique.
  3. Listen for the ideas that individuals seem most interested in.
  4. Help design some small experiments to test assumptions around a potential solution. Iterate and refine the solution.
  5. Give them ownership to take the next step (i.e., form a working group, write a business plan, implement the changes, etc.) and provide support along the way.

How have you found meaning in work? How can you help others find meaning in work? How might we challenge ourselves and others to care about an issue enough to “transcend the present” and connect with the future?