What is meaningful work?

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A lot has been written about meaningful work, but there is no universally agreed definition. However, it would be fair to say that meaningful work has some objective features, and some subjective features. In other words, for work to be meaningful it is important that it meets certain basic standards of what might generally be regarded as meaningful, and also that it is seen as meaningful by the worker themselves.

The objective features of meaningful work are that the work is freely entered into (ie the individual is not coerced into doing the work), that it offers some degree of autonomy (ie the individual has some choices they are able to make about the work), and that it is dignified work (ie the worker is not degraded by doing the work).

The subjective features of meaningful work often include the following:

  • the individual themselves perceives the work to be meaningful
  • the work allows the individual to feel that they contribute to the wider world beyond themselves; this may involve contributions to other individuals, society or a ’cause’ of some kind
  • the work is challenging and helps the individual to develop, grow and learn about themselves

The research I’ve done with Adrian Madden has also shown that meaningful work has some surprising features:

  • meaningful work is episodic, in other words, people don’t find their work consistently meaningful
  • it is often discovered on reflection; people tend to find meaning in their work when they look back over what they have done, rather than ‘in the moment’
  • it is transcendent, in other words, people tend to find their work meaningful when it matters more to others than to themselves.
  • it can be poignant, sad, challenging or difficult work, and is not always a joyous experience, it can involve overcoming pain or suffering, or helping others to do this
  • it is highly personal. People often talk about other people such as family members or friends when they talk about their work as meaningful. This is generally not the case when people talk about other attitudes towards work such as satisfaction or enjoyment.

Can any job be meaningful?

One question that is often asked is whether any work can be meaningful, or only certain jobs. In our research we interviewed people in 10 different jobs from street sweepers to shop assistants, solicitors, nurses, clergy, artists soldiers, cathedral stonemasons, academics, creative artists and entrepreneurs. Almost everyone we talked to could find examples of times they found their work meaningful, but they could also think of times they found their work meaningless. And although people hardly ever talked about their line manager when they talked about meaningful work, they talked a great deal about their line manager or their employer when they related instances of meaninglessness!

Overall, we found that people find their work both meaningful and meaningless at different times, and for different reasons.

We’ve written more about our research in the Sloan Management Review: MIT Sloan Management Review article on meaningful work

Further references:

Lips-Wiersma, M., & Morris, L. 2009. Discriminating between ‘meaningful work’ and the ‘management of meaning’. Journal of Business Ethics, 88: 491-511.

Yeoman, R. 2014. Conceptualising meaningful work as a fundamental human need. Journal of Business Ethics, 125: 235-251.