Research reported in the Harvard Business Review shows that nine out of ten people are willing to earn less money to do more meaningful work. Think about that in the context of your career, and perhaps your role as a manager and leader. Meaning matters. When you consider the vast majority of people today are disengaged at work, and with high levels of workplace anxiety, depression and stress, helping people find more meaning in their everyday working lives can have a significant impact on many aspects of their life.
HBR also tells us that when people are working with a sense of meaning they are generally:
• More satisfied.
• More productive.
• More committed and engaged.
• Happier with the sense of meaningful contribution being made.
• Have personal hope for the future.
• Create greater value for customers and investors.
The benefits are undeniable. Yet for so many people, meaning and purpose can feel elusive.
Have you ever found yourself in this position? Feeling disheartened and disengaged, desperately searching for more meaning and purpose? Here are 4 evidence-based pathways to follow…
Connect your daily tasks to a broader sense of service
There is a fable you may have heard of the three bricklayers who were all working on the same wall, building a cathedral. Someone asked the bricklayers, what are you doing? The first said, I’m laying bricks. The second bricklayer replied, I’m building a wall. And the third answered, I’m building a great cathedral for God. They all had the same task, but they all had very different ways of looking at how they were doing it. The third bricklayer had a really clear vision of how the daily tasks of laying those bricks fit into a broader and more meaningful purpose.
Meaning is found not through serving ourselves in isolation, but it’s found through connecting and contributing beyond ourselves. Where can you find more meaning in the work that you’re already doing? Can you connect your work to service and ask how can I make a difference for others?
When Bill George was the CEO of Medtronic, at the annual meetings he’d invite a person whose life had been saved by a defibrillator to speak to his colleagues and tell them how their work had saved his life. And he’d highlight someone in the quality control department and explain how her dedication and regard were saving thousands of lives. It connected his colleagues directly to the people that they served.
You may not be handling a situation of life and death at work every day, just like I’m not, but we all serve someone in what we do.
Teachers can see the lives that they’re shaping and they can visualise the lasting impact they may have on the lives that they’re touching every day.
If you’re a corporate accountant or in a support role, then perhaps you can connect yourself mentally to the larger work of the organisation that you work in and take pride and purpose in the customers that you’re helping.
Craft your work and make your work a craft
Professor Amy Wrzesniewski from the Yale School of Management is an expert in how we experience work. One of her areas of research was an in depth study of hospital custodial staff to determine what helped certain members of the staff excel. She uncovered a practice amongst the happiest and most effective custodians that she termed ‘job crafting’.
These hospital workers were focused intensely on serving patients, even though they were cleaning the hospitals. And they would create the work they wanted to do out of the work they’d been assigned.
They found more meaningful and more worthwhile work doing this. For example, one of the custodial staff would rearrange artwork in rooms to stimulate the comatose patients’ brains. Others devoted time to learning about the chemicals used for cleaning rooms and figuring out which were least likely to irritate a patient’s condition. They were pursuing excellence in service to others, and they would adapt their jobs to suit that purpose, whilst creating more meaning for themselves in the process. Think about how you can craft your work to bring more meaning into it.
Invest in positive relationships
Who we work with is as important as what we do and psychologist Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, has written extensively on the importance of relationships to happiness and fulfillment. Other research from the Harvard Grant Study found that happiness and even financial success are tied to the warmth of one’s relationships.
Reflect on the meaning that comes from your positive relationships at work and how you can invest more of your time and energy in those relationships.
Reconnect to your ‘Why’
The last piece here is remembering why you work. Most of us don’t have the luxury of working just for fun. We earn money to pay our bills through our work, but we can also find acts of service in our work and remember those things every day. So whether that’s your role as a parent and you’re working hard so that you can look after your children; whether it’s that you find a lot of meaning in your work from serving your community from the money that you earn – whatever it is, remember why you work.
By doing these four things, you’ll be able to bring more meaning into the work that you do every day and you’ll be happier, more productive, and experience all of the other benefits that come with a greater sense of meaning.
- Who do you serve and how can you connect your day to day job consciously and concretely to those that you’re ultimately serving?
- How can you craft your work to bring more meaning to it?
- What meaning do you get from the positive relationships at your work? How can you invest more time and energy in those relationships?
- What is the ‘why’ behind your work? At the end of the day, why do you do it?