I was invited to present at the Institute for Employment Studies yesterday on meaningful work, and one of the delegates asked, ‘why are we all so interested in meaningful work now?’ Certainly, even just a few years ago we were not seeing anything like the number of conferences, events and discussions focused on the topic, the number of organisations looking at how to provide their staff with meaningful work, or individuals seeking meaningful work.
So what’s changed? I think there are a number of factors at play here.
First, we’ve seen a growing pull towards ‘conscious capitalism’ with its focus on higher purpose and sustainability. This has emerged in light of the perceived failings of the prevailing neo-liberalist approach to capitalism that led to the recent worldwide economic recession. People want a different approach to doing business that places human beings centre-stage, rather than placing them second to profits.
Allied with this, levels of trust in large organisations have diminished significantly. A recent YouGov poll showed that 69% of British people no longer trust any major company or organisation.
Major corporate scandals like the Volkswagen emissions test rigging or the workhouse-style treatment of workers at Sports Direct exemplify for many why firms can’t be relied on to tell the truth or behave with integrity. It’s been said we live in an era of ‘post-truth’ politics, but perhaps we can also talk about ‘post-truth’ organisations. If organisational trust is being eroded, this will inevitably take with it some forms of meaningfulness. How can we derive meaning from our work if we don’t have confidence in what we’re being told by our employers? Or if our employers are behaving unscrupulously towards their employees? Scandals such as these undermine the sense of purposefulness that lies at the heart of meaningful work, and people rightly start to ask what can be done to reinstate this sense of meaning.
Another factor of course is the waning significance of community in modern Western society, alongside the declining levels of religious observance. Feeling disconnected from those around us, and not being part of a group with a shared spiritual purpose also deprives us of a source of meaningfulness in our lives that we are perhaps seeking to replace with meaningfulness derived through our work.
The question is: do our employers have the know-how and motivation to step in and provide us with the environment conducive to finding this meaning?