Six questions to ask if you want to know if your work is meaningful

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The demands of the start of the academic term have rather taken me away from my blog over the past few weeks. That, and the fact that I am co-editing a special issue of the Journal of Management Studies on meaningful work, albeit with help from a wonderful team of colleagues, that has attracted a large number of submissions from all over the world.  It’s been so busy that I haven’t really had time to stop and think and, at times, the deadlines have been so pressing, and the hours so long, that a nagging concern that perhaps my own work isn’t quite as meaningful as I’d like has crept in!

This, together with a recent conversation with Sherry Bevan, has set me wondering: how responsible are we each as individuals for the meaningfulness we find in our work? Can we, or should we, always expect employers to do the hard graft and supply us with meaningful work? Or should we each step up to the plate and seek out the meaningfulness for ourselves?

On the one hand, employers are certainly responsible for providing decent conditions of work and for designing jobs that at least have the potential for meaningfulness.  We can’t expect individuals to find their work meaningful when they are being bullied or harassed, paid below the minimum wage, or are working in appalling conditions.

However, it is perhaps unreasonable to expect that employers should do it all. Perhaps we as individuals have a responsibility to ourselves to consider whether our work is meaningful to us. If it isn’t, then what are we going to do about it?

I’m extremely fortunate in that I find most of the work I do profoundly meaningful.  I work in congenial surroundings with interesting people and, even though it doesn’t feel like it at times, have a great deal of control over my work. I’m able to look forward to a lull in the pressures in a few weeks’ time when I know I will be able to take a deep breath and work at a more manageable pace that will enable me to gather my thoughts.

Not everyone is in this situation. Some people are in jobs they rarely or never find meaningful. I was recently reading a new article on meaningful work by Douglas Lepisto and Michael Pratt which reminds us that meaningfulness is so important to people that over 50% of young workers would accept a lower wage or diminished role in return for more meaning. However, a large number of people are sadly unable to find that meaning in the work they do.

If employers can’t do it all, what can we as individuals do? The first thing is to pause and reflect on our work. When we have talked to people about the meaningfulness of their work, it is evident that in most cases people only realise their work is meaningful in retrospect rather than in the moment. Some quiet reflection can help identify the source of the problem. We can start by asking ourselves the following six questions:

Over the past year:

  1. How has my work helped to make the world a better place? You don’t have to be spearheading an international charity or designing an iconic building, you could be working in the IT department of a large firm.
  2. Who has benefited from the work that I do? Research has shown that people who can see the direct benefit of their work for other people find more meaning. People working in shops often talk about their work being meaningful because of the help they give to customers.
  3. Have I been called upon to perform at my best, at work I’m good at doing, in order to do my job well? People tend to find their work more meaningful when they are working to the best of their ability at work they excel at, rather than just coasting along and not fulfilling their potential.
  4. Have I been able to stretch and grow through doing my work? Does your job offer you the chance to develop new knowledge and skills?
  5. Have I found my work fulfilling, even if at times it is challenging? Studies have shown that meaningful work can sometimes call on the individual to cope with difficult or even extreme circumstances. What makes this meaningful is that the individual is able to gain a sense of achievement through adversity.
  6. When I look back at my work, do I feel I’ve done something important? What we find important will be very subjective, but if you can’t identify anything over the last year that you would say is important to you in some way, this is a sure sign that it will be difficult to find much meaning in your work.

Sometimes, people are surprised to find that although they thought their work was meaningless, when they stop and think about it, they are able to identify ways in which their work is actually meaningful to them after all. However, if your answers to these six questions show that you really are not finding much meaning in your work, maybe it’s time to consider talking to your employer about how to address this, or even to look for another role?

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