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This week I have been thinking about the ‘meaningful work’ for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I have spent the week on the phone to some fantastic candidates for a senior management role in Melbourne. In our discussions, several of these high-flying executives have indicated they are at a point in their career where they are no longer chasing the big salary; they now want a job where their work ‘means something’. Secondly, I’ve been talking with a young professional who has always loved his job, but after taking a sideways move last year, feels so disconnected from the customer that his job now ‘feels meaningless’ and he’s looking at other opportunities.
What gives our work meaning? Is it intensely personal for each individual or can we create a work environment that gives our work a sense of purpose? How many would choose to do the work they do, if they didn’t have to?
Are Australian’s really that unhappy in our work? Turns out, we are. According to a recent survey of 4,800 Aussie workers less than half of them are happy with their jobs and only a small percentage were actively looking to change their situation. So potentially more than half your team don’t find their work rewarding, but they have no plans to leave or change. No wonder that elusive ‘engaged employee’ is so hard to find.
Surprisingly, there has been very little research into where and how people find meaningful work and the role that leaders play. A recent research study, ‘What Makes Work Meaningful – Or Meaningless’ (Bailey & Madden, 2016) interviewed 135 people working across vastly difference occupations. They found that the ‘quality of leadership received virtually no mention when people described meaningful moments at work… but poor management was the top destroyer of meaningfulness’. They also found that meaningful work is deeply personal, that it is episodic (meaning it doesn’t need to be a daily occurrence) and that often it occurred in retrospect, the satisfaction came only when someone reflected back on their work or achievements.
What are the factors that encourage or destroy the meaningfulness that people find in their work?
Linking the work to something bigger
What gets you out of bed in the morning (other than a strong cup of coffee)? The research shows that people tend “to experience their work as meaningful when it mattered to others more than just to themselves.” (Bailey & Madden 2016). We don’t all need to work for a charity or a social enterprise to be contributing to society. Every business was started with a desire to provide a product or service to help others. We need to see a link between what we do and the main purpose of our organisation. We need a connection to our organisation’s mission and values, in short the ‘why’. This is likely to mean doing more than just creating a mission statement and putting it up on the wall. Talk about it regularly, make it part of your decision making process. An organisation that focuses solely on the bottom line, will struggle to create meaning in the work that we do.
Empowering people to organise their own work
Give people choice over how to do things and encourage them to use their judgement. In a previous blog, I talked about managing the work outputs, not the inputs. Allow people real control over various aspects of their work — whether it’s deciding what to work on, how to do it or when it should be done. When you encourage people to use their judgement and listen to their ideas, they are more likely to find their contributions valued and their work worthwhile.
Showing your organisations’ impact on the customer
Create opportunities for your staff to have direct contact with your end customers. In one place where I worked, we did this through ‘work experience’ for back-of-house staff, into frontline roles. Where your customer is more removed, you could arrange site visits or customer focus groups. Even sharing your customer stories and feedback can be greatly beneficial.
Providing a safe workplace
Putting people’s physical or emotional safety at risk will inevitably destroy meaningfulness in their work. Where a person feels vulnerable or unsafe, they cannot focus on any of the other factors that could make their work meaningful.
The benefits to individuals and organisations in cultivating meaningful work are obvious. Increased motivation, productivity, employee retention, the list goes on. I know I’ve left jobs for nearly all of the factors above. Now I’ve found my ‘why’, have you found yours?
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Claire Huntington has over 15 years’ experience in senior and executive level human resource management and strategic leadership positions. Claire learnt HR under the wings of great mentors and through trial and error. She has a very practical hands-on approach to HR and management, and isn’t afraid to look outside the box. Claire is also mum to three primary-school aged firecrackers and is an avid photographer in her spare time.
Disclaimer: The material contained in this publication is of a general nature only. It is not, nor is intended to be, legal advice. If you wish to act based on the content of this publication, we recommend that you seek professional advice.
 Source: Independent research conducted by Survey Sampling International on behalf of SEEK Learning, 2016
 What Makes Work Meaningful – Or Meaningless, Bailey, C. & Madden, A. 2016. MITSloan Management Review.