Meaningful Work Research


To have a robust understanding of what "meaningful work" is in a variety of ways. This would include the definition of “meaningful work”, as well as what its attributes are. As well to understand the type(s) of work corporate employees find most meaningful, the common obstacles to "meaningful work", the successful strategies for turning work into “meaningful work”?, and finally to know the value of creating meaningful work for the business/company itself. An ideal response would use real life examples.

Early Findings

Definition of Meaningful Work

  • Interviews with 135 people in 10 different fields, and reviews of existing research into meaningful work has shown that meaningfulness in work can improve performance, commitment, and job satisfaction, and that employees find meaningful work more important than salary, working conditions, or opportunities for promotion.
  • Finding meaning in work, however, is “intensely personal and individual.” There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to meaningful work.

Attributes of Meaningful Work

  • According to the researchers behind the interviews mentioned above, meaningful work arises when “an individual perceives an authentic connection between work and a broader transcendent life purpose beyond the self.”
  • Meaningfulness was also associated often with a sense of pride and achievement, a feeling of fulfilling one’s potential, and finding work creative, absorbing, and interesting.
  • Meaningfulness was rarely experienced in the moment, but rather in retrospect and on reflection when people were able to see their completed work and make connections between their achievements and a wider sense of life meaning.

Factors that Decrease Feelings of Meaningful Work: Obstacles

  • What increases feelings of meaning in work and what can kill those same feelings are quite different. Leaders and managers, for instance, have very little influence on increasing feelings of meaningfulness, but the way people are treated by their leaders is the most common cause of decreasing meaning at work.
  • Through these interviews, the researchers found seven particular acts that managers most commonly take which increase feelings of futility and meaninglessness in their employees: creating a disconnect between personal and company values, failing to recognize and appreciate employee contributions, giving employees work they see as pointless (e.g. bureaucratic work or filling out forms), treating employees unfairly, overriding employees’ judgment, leading to feelings of disempowerment, ostracizing employees or creating a disconnect between colleagues, and creating unnecessary risk of harm to employees (e.g. putting them in situations where they feel unsafe).
  • To sum up the interviewers’ findings, managers can’t help people increase how meaningful their work is, but they can all-too-easily undermine those same feelings: "our research showed that quality of leadership received virtually no mention when people described meaningful moments at work… but poor management was the top destroyer of meaningfulness."

Increasing Feelings of Meaningful Work

  • To increase feelings of meaningfulness at work, a person could simply look for a new job that offers more meaning, but a person can also work on adjusting their current job. This approach is called “job crafting,” a term coined by psychologists Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane E. Dutton in 2001. Job crafting is the strategy of turning the job already obtained into the job that is loved. It’s a process of adjusting the job description to create a role that provides more meaning in a persons' life, and those who do it tend to be more satisfied and engaged in their work.
  • Recent scholarship from Stephan Meier, the James P. Gorman Professor of Business Strategy, suggests that it’s not just the mission of workplace that matters, but factors such as autonomy, competence and “relatedness,” or feeling connected to an organization that defines a meaningful job.

Studies Surrounding Meaningful Work

  • According to the 2018 World Value Index only 14% of Americans strongly agree that the values of their employer match their own. Another 28% say they somewhat agree, meaning a majority of Americans are spending the majority of their productive lives in environments they don’t fully believe in.
  • Gallup found 85% of workers globally are not engaged in their work.
  • A business that is not cognitive of meaningful work will cost them. Studies have found that decreased employee engagement leads to higher absenteeism, more errors, accidents and defects, lower productivity, lower profitability, lower job growth, and 65% lower share price over time.
  • There are few statistics on unfulfilling jobs. But in a YouGov poll, UK workers were asked “if their job made a meaningful contribution to the world”; 37 percent said no and in a similar survey 40 percent of Dutch employees said their job had no reason to exist.
  • A Kimble survey showed that the vast majority of workers care deeply about how the business they work for is performing, but very few of them felt they had a clear picture. That makes it harder for them to understand the value of their contribution.

Real World Examples of Meaningful Work

  • As a first step to creating alignment, what can work well is beginning with internal conversations about what people and teams stand for, and what really living up to that would look like. One example is REI’s much-acclaimed and commercially successful #OptOutside program which began from an internal conversation about how to live up to its team’s brand positioning of “a life outdoors is a life well lived.” From that sprang not just marketing, but programs of meaningful action that got millions of people outside. Facilitating human conversations internally can be uncomfortable, but it’s only from this level of engagement internally that real, values-aligned passion can be unlocked.

Value of Creating Meaningful Work for Business

  • The real role for businesses is to try to create conditions in which people find meaning in their work, by not taking employees for granted, by treating them unfairly or giving them pointless work, and instead to help employees understand the purpose of the organization in which they work and how it contributes to society,” explains Professor Adrian Madden from the University of Greenwich’s Business School, who along with Professor Katie Bailey from Kings College London has researched meaningful work.
  • When a company and their employees work together to solve problems, it creates a strong team spirit, and most people find being part of a team, working together on a shared endeavor, is highly engaging and meaningful. People also love being part of a winning side, succeeding and growing and effecting change as a group. Ensuring that the business has an inclusive culture and values diversity is important as it creates stronger and more resilient teams.

Summary Of Our Early Findings Relevant To The Goals

  • Our first hour of research made it clear that there is an abundance of recent publicly available information on this topic.
  • We were able to provide the definition of meaningful work, the attributes of meaningful work, some factors that decrease feelings of meaningful work (obstacles), some insights on increasing feelings of meaningful work, some studies surrounding meaningful work, one real world example of meaningful work, and some data surrounding the value of creating meaningful work for business.
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Proposed next steps:

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