Make Your Work More Meaningful
Any job can be meaningful if you know how
Working in a meaningful job might seem like a distant dream for many of us, but all it really needs is a change of attitude and a better approach.
Meaning in work and life is not just a “nice-to-have”. We need it in the way we need oxygen. There are few things more life-enriching and life-prolonging in human experience than a sense of meaning.
Critically important to performance and well-being, meaning is what makes people thrive. And conversely, a lack of it undermines people’s ability to function on many levels, from job performance to mental and physical health. For example, people who self-report that they are missing a sense of meaning in their lives are far more likely to exhibit the chronic pro-inflammatory stress response that is associated with life-threatening diseases like heart disease and some cancers.
But how many people truly experience their work as meaningful? From my experience coaching people, conducting research, teaching, and speaking in a number of countries over the last 20 years, I can attest that large numbers of people do not. Across all manner of occupations, from gas station attendants to investment bankers, surveys reveal large numbers of people failing to find meaning in what they do.
If you can't find any meaning in your current job, maybe it's time for a change of career? Our Returner Roll-Up Session can help you Learn how to Identify your Transferable Skills.
Is your work obviously meaningful?
So what do you do if you’re not in a setting where meaning is obvious — because your organization, for example, exists to provide life-saving technology or to lift people out of poverty? What if you work in a place where management is unaware or unconcerned that it could do more to infuse the daily grind with a higher sense of purpose?
You learn to make your work more meaningful yourself. While it helps enormously to have conditions in place that facilitate work meaning (like autonomy in deciding how you do your work), it’s important to realize that meaning is ultimately something you can create at least partly on your own. Indeed, even in jobs that may look dismal from the outside, there are always steps you can take to build the kind of meaning that will make you feel better and work better.
Where is the meaning in call centres?
I saw this firsthand when I was a PhD student, in the call center of a large telecommunications company. As part of the research for my dissertation, I interviewed and observed customer service representatives while they worked. The pace of work was relentless: as soon as a worker completed a call and hung up the phone, another call was automatically directed to his or her extension. Every detail of representatives’ work was measured and recorded: the number of rings it took them to answer each call; the number of seconds they placed each call on hold; the amount of time they spent resolving each call, etc., as well as daily totals of calls handled and sales made.
Supervisors monitored the resulting data in a room that resembled the deck of a starship from science fiction films, with an array of lights that identified representatives who were “out of adherence” with the standards set for the aforementioned metrics. What’s more, supervisors could listen in on representatives’ calls without their knowledge at any time in order to monitor their performance. If you failed to make a sales pitch on a call that your supervisor was monitoring, you’d be reprimanded. All in all, the work conditions were prime for high stress and low meaning.
Create your own meaning at work
Yet there were some employees who experienced their work as meaningful. Joan, a 24-year-veteran of the call center, told me, “I really enjoy my work”. She explained, “I am a customer service professional. [Joan’s emphasis.] When customers call, it’s often because they have a problem that is frustrating to them. I know how to solve every request or problem customers might call with, and I know how to do it in a way that makes them feel good about their call. I resolve the problem so it’s no longer stressful for them.”
The skill mastery she described and demonstrated provided her with meaning, as did the way in which she incorporated this mastery into her identity as a helping professional. Knowing that she was capable of reliably producing a result that she cared about amplified Joan’s experience of her work as meaningful. In other words, Joan’s recipe for work meaning was self-efficacy mixed with concordance with her personal values, seasoned with connection to and feedback from the beneficiaries of her work.
Sitting by her side with a headset that enabled me to listen in on her calls, I witnessed how Joan systematically built an authentic connection from the first few seconds of her interaction with each caller. “I hear what you’re saying, and I know how frustrating this is,” she assured her customers. “I understand the issue. I promise that I will help you solve this. I’m so glad I could help you today.” Customers responded positively to her competence, compassion, and reassurance, thereby affirming her sense of mastery and boosting her self-confidence and pleasure in her work. Joan’s way of working—and of thinking about her work—created a self-reinforcing cycle of performance, meaning, and positive emotion.
The importance of personal values and motivations
Joan’s example provides a lesson that everyone can use to make their work more meaningful, regardless of company, industry, or occupation. Finding ways to link your personal values and motivations to the work you perform is key. To do this, pay close attention to the elements of your work that you find energizing and fulfilling, and then find ways to incorporate them systematically into how you perform your work. Look for opportunities to make an authentic connection with the people who benefit from your work. Invest some energy in developing positive relationships with others who contribute to the same work results you care about and find energizing.
Since you have the ability to determine how you think about and respond to the conditions you experience, you do have control over the meaning you derive from work. So yes, as you interact with hiring managers and supervisors, keep making it clear that you want meaningful work. But at the same time, do what you can to make the work meaningful.
Do you feel lost or without purpose in your career? Our Mentoring Services can help to provide you with a senior, neutral woman with experience to help unlock your full potential.
A version of this article was originally published on Harvard Business Review.
Found that interesting?
Learn more about our services
Make your dreams a reality with a professional evaluation of your career to date.
The evidence is in. More women in your company can deliver 35% greater financial returns. (Catalyst)
Dates for the Diary
We have Remote Learning Programs available
Check out our exciting portfolio of offerings to support your business in upskilling and competence building for your teams, to address the unprecedented challenges that women face in this new totally a digital world.
Download and listen free podcasts
How to Create an Effective USP What is a USP? Our Unique Selling Point or UVP (Unique Value Proposition) is our key core message about where...read more
How to Rethink the Modern Workplace for Gender Equality New research shows that diversity and inclusion is a top priority for leaders. So why...read more
Menopause in the workplace In this podcast with Nicki Williams award winning author, keynote speaker and Founder of Happy Hormones for Life,...read more
How to Cultivate Empathy in the Workplace Nancy Milton, international business communications expert, keynote speaker and author, share some vital...read more
Taking Care of your COW Tanvi Guatam, international Personal Branding expert says there is a misconception out there that a personal brand is...read more
The importance of Hard Talk Dawn Metcalfe, author of Managing the Matrix and Hard Talk, shares with us tips to achieve the lasting communication...read more
When Does Female Rivalry Turn into Sabotage There’s a lot of stuff written on social media about female rivalry and competition between women. Some...read more
Goal setting tips to boost your career The happiest people are those that really love their jobs. Those that don’t, dread Sunday nights and...read more
How to Get Noticed by Head Hunters & Recruiters In this power coaching podcast, we're going to tackle one of the questions asked multiple...read more
Virtual event promotion is important, but this is especially true for online events as they are new for many people, here is what to try, and to avoid!read more
In an era when hard sales pitching is now unwelcome pretty much everywhere, it has been replaced by the humble brag. We all think the humble brag is a good way of sharing our achievements without looking arrogant. But research shows that it may not necessarily always work in our favour as we think.read more
An online reputation is easily damaged. It can be repaired but sadly bad news travels fast on and offline. It’s not always entry level that make mistakes.read more