The importance of meaningful work

A few years ago I facilitated several focus groups with graduate trainees of a large and very successful professional services firm. The CEO was concerned about attrition rates three years into the firm’s graduate scheme and wanted to get to the root cause.

One of the main issues for the graduates was the lack of meaningful work.

People look for meaning and purpose in their lives, including at work, to strengthen their self-worth and life experience. Meaningfulness arises when individuals perceive a genuine connection between their work and their broad life purpose. This fits with the work of management gurus such as Pink and Sinek and far more learned academics such as Bailey, Kahn and Madden.

So why should organisations bother to understand their employees and help them to experience meaningfulness at work? Isn’t it enough simply to reward them fairly for what they do? A purely economic model of work sells both employer and employee short. It leads to clock watching; a lack of discretionary effort; a focus on terms and conditions; and a reduction in team spirit and altruism.

Research studies have demonstrated a link between meaningful work and higher levels of engagement, reduced absence levels and improved work quality.

So what can you do to improve the meaning of work? It’s easier in some organisations than others, charities and the caring professions for example, but whatever your trade there are three areas of job design to explore:

  • Autonomy, variety and challenge
  • A good person-job fit
  • Rewarding social interactions with colleagues and customers

Visionary leadership which focuses on the why is critical. People don’t get out of bed to double your sales or buy bigger cars for their directors!

The benefits of providing meaningful work make it worth the effort. But as with every area of people management it’s important to find out what meaningful means to different people rather than make assumptions.

Maybe Dostoevsky went a little far when he wrote ‘Deprived of meaningful work, men and women lose their reason for existence; they go stark, raving mad’ but deprived of meaningful work graduates will at least consider their options.

Do your team members feel useful and valued? Do they believe they belong in your business? Do they think they can make a difference?


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