The quest for’meaning’ at work

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Employees are increasingly expressing a desire for their work to be meaningful. But what exactly is a’meaningful’ job?

When you ask workers what is most important to them in a job, the pay check is usually at the top of the list – perhaps unsurprisingly. People, however, want their work to have meaning, as data is beginning to show.

According to a 2020 McKinsey & Company survey, 82% of employees believe it is critical for their company to have a purpose; ideally, one that contributes to society and creates meaningful work. And when a company has a purpose, so do its employees. Separate McKinsey research from 2022 found that 70% of employees say their work defines their personal sense of purpose, and when that work feels meaningful, they perform better, are much more committed, and are about half as likely to look for a new job. 

According to Aaron De Smet, a senior partner at McKinsey, the search for meaning at work is a relatively new concept. He claims that the Industrial Revolution made work very “transactional”: people worked and were paid to live, with no greater purpose required or expected. Workers began to want more as decent working conditions and a pay check became basic necessities. A 2018 survey of American professionals found that nine out of ten workers would trade a percentage of their earnings for more meaningful work. This desire for meaning is especially strong among the newest generation of workers; in a Monster survey of Gen Z workers, 70% of respondents ranked purpose as more important than pay.

As people’s jobs have become an important part of their identities – and the way they spend the majority of their time – they have also become the place where they hope to find at least some meaning in their lives. People can define meaning in a variety of ways, such as working in a glamorous “dream job” or using specific skills to perform a necessary role. However people frame meaning, experts say that in the future workplace, making people feel like what they’re doing matters more than ever.

The modern search for meaning at work

The desire for meaningful work has been a slow and steady evolution as society has become more prosperous overall. People began to want more from their daily grinds as their basic needs for food and shelter were met and the nature of work changed.

The more rote, repetitive jobs have vanished in many industries. “Automation is happening pretty quickly, which is why I think things are now approaching a tipping point where meaning matters a lot,” De Smet says.  

Stephanie Bot, a clinical psychologist and co-founder of Workright, a Toronto-based workplace mental-health consultancy, observes that identity has become inextricably linked to work for many people. In many ways, what we do defines who we are. “As our jobs have evolved, people are looking for a stronger sense of self,” she says. When people’s work has meaning, it makes them feel like their lives have meaning, she says.

People also spend the majority of their time at work – it’s the activity that consumes the majority of their waking hours – and even when they’re not actively working, many people are still thinking about work. The majority of young people, in particular, report difficulty disengaging. It becomes even more critical, then, that the place where people spend the majority of their time and mental energy has meaning. “If people don’t have time outside of work to meet those needs,” Bot says, “they need to get more out of work.”

Meaningful work has become more important to people than ever before in the aftermath of the pandemic. It acted as a catalyst, realigning many people’s priorities. According to De Smet of 2021 McKinsey research, “two-thirds of US employees said Covid caused them to reflect on their life’s purpose.” “Everyone took this opportunity to pause and reflect.” People were assessing their lives and wondering, ‘Does what I do matter?’ ‘I should really devote my time to things that are important.'”

The search for meaning in one’s work contributed to the Great Resignation, a phenomenon that has seen workers leave in droves over the last two years. “Some people said, ‘I’m not getting enough meaning from my work; I want to work somewhere where my purpose is more fulfilled by the work I do,'” De Smet explains. “Alternatively, they stated, ‘I don’t believe the work I do is important to anyone.’ I’d like to go somewhere where my work is valued by my organisation.”

The meaning of meaning

But what exactly does meaning imply? According to Bot, there is no universal definition because “how the person perceives their work is what determines whether it is meaningful or not.”

Work can become meaningful in a variety of ways, she says, some more obvious than others. “The obvious is when people are doing work that they believe benefits humanity,” she says. “However, you don’t have to feed the poor to feel like your work is meaningful.”

People were assessing their lives and wondering, ‘Does what I do matter?’ ‘I should devote more of my time to things that matter,’ says Aaron De Smet.

Work can be meaningful for some people if it allows them to put their skills to use or stretch their creative muscles. “People should do work that is aligned with their interests and talents,” Bot says, “because alignment creates meaning.” I’ll feel good about myself if I feel like I’m contributing the best parts of myself to whatever it is.”

Meaning is also derived from the sense that one’s presence matters – not just to the company’s goals or bottom line, but also to other members of one’s team. “It’s meaningful if they feel like they’re part of a larger community,” Bot adds. “Since the pandemic, I’ve heard a lot more people say, ‘My work is soulless.’ I believe this is because they have lost their sense of community. Isolation obstructs meaning.”

According to a Brookings working paper from 2022, relationships are the most important determinant of work meaning. According to the study, those who have a strong sense of relatedness and thus get more meaning from their jobs are more likely to put in more effort.

None of this is limited to jobs requiring knowledge. People in lower-profile positions, too, want to feel like they’re contributing to something bigger than themselves, according to Peter Watkins, the CFA Institute’s UK-based university relations director. “It’s important that people can talk about their job with pride,” Watkins says, “and that’s linked to knowing that their small part in a larger organisation is leading to something a little more worthwhile.”

Bot agrees that any job can have meaning as long as it feels like it contributes to a larger goal. “Look, shelves need to be stocked just as much as any other job,” she says. “It all contributes to meeting people’s needs.” Every job is important because every job is required.” 

The meaning of a job can also have nothing to do with the job itself. For some, a pay check is just what they need to get through the fun parts of life. For example, if a person’s favourite pastime is travelling the world, any job has meaning if it pays for plane tickets.

“I think a lot of people are reclaiming that time away from work,” Bot says. “They go to work and do what they need to do, but then they go home and see family, meet with some volunteer group, do the activities that make them feel good and are supportive of their health,” says one.

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