Does you work have meaning? Is it meaningful?
Does your work have meaning? Is it meaningful? And do you think those two things are the same or different? Who remembers Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs CEO, claiming his firm did “God’s work”? Does your work embrace something spiritual? I ask because I am starting the literature review for my university dissertation and I am looking at doing some research that fits into the fields of Employee Engagement and the Meaningfulness of Work. This is likely to be the first in a series of pleas to help me get that work done by filling in a survey, that once it has Ethics Approval, will appear on my LinkedIn account.
It is a subject that is important to me because I am not sure that work ever had much meaning for me. It had a purpose, definitely, and I was very motivated to be as good at it as I could be, and to be rewarded for doing it. I am not convinced that is the same as either meaning, or meaningfulness. In the last ten years of my career in the City, I had a number of managerial roles. I wonder what answers I would have got in those insufferable semi-annual reviews, if I had explored meaning with my teams, instead of pointless KPIs, and unsubtle applications of verbal carrots and sticks.
I am a fan of Alain de Botton’s ‘School of Life’. In a recent promotional email, they suggested that the two ingredients that make up a fulfilled life are love and work. Freud is said to have remarked that“love and work are the cornerstones of humanness”. Unless, they suggest, we have a found a vocation — a form of work that is both enjoyable and meaningful — our existence will be directionless and hollow. But does attention to one of these ingredients diminish the other? I remember looking at my sales teams and wondering about their sense of meaning.
Most of them shared my view of us as hamsters on an ever-spinning wheel, going nowhere, but unwilling to get off because meaningless work still met the needs we had, which was usually a mortgage and school fees. So that, as I understood it, gave people purpose (be diligent, don’t get sacked), but was a long way from meaning. This year has seen many of us standing in our doorways clapping NHS workers. We have talked about ‘’heroes’ amongst essential, but often low-paid workers. Perhaps we are all being asked to recalibrate meaning of work.
The academic literature on Employee Engagement and on Motivation is lengthy and deep. Meaning at Work and meaningfulness is a younger field, perhaps a quarter of a century, and offers more scope for new and innovative research. One researcher wrote that “the meaning of work literature is still experiencing its adolescence”(Rosso et al, 2010). Is it important? In a paper published in the Journal of Career Assessment in 2012, Steger et al asserted that “meaningful work is a good predictor of desirable work attitudes like job satisfaction and a better predictor of absenteeism from work than job satisfaction.”It seems that if you want people to be happy at their job and show up, it’s more important that they find meaning in it, than that they enjoy it.
I am interested in seeing if there are gender differences to meaning at work, if the age cohort is important and what the correlation is, if any, between earnings and meaningfulness. Perhaps meaning will have been impacted or enhanced by the virus-induced WFH culture? I recently spent time with a former boss of mine and we found ourselves talking about how little meaning our roles had had, albeit using slightly different language. What was interesting to me, with a research hat on, was that we had big roles, some status, insofar as status is conferred by a title, and we were very highly paid.
What is meaning, then? And meaningfulness? All research refers back to Viktor Frankl, a holocaust survivor who wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning” in 1946. He went on to found logotherpay — a meaning-centred school of psychotherapy. He wrote that “I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche.” That said, I have found no evidence of anyone paraphrasing Descartes’s “cogito ergo sum” or “I think, therefore I am”, with “I work, therefore I am”.
Consider, are work hours growing? Is work a greater share of our lives? Has the pandemic further eroded work boundaries? Does that mean it is more or less meaningful? What happens to colleagues with different views on the meaning of work? Do we need to organise so that more like-minded people work together, or seek diversity?
In 2010 Rosso et al published ‘On the Meaning of Work’. The importance of the subject and the paper was “it moves beyond hedonic perspectives of work behaviour to deeper considerations of purpose and significance….and eudemonic aspects of wellbeing”.(Eudemonia is an Aristotelian philosophy that a ‘full’ life is governed by reason). They found the distinction between meaning and meaningfulness: Meaning describes a type of meaning which is attributable to work whereas meaningfulness was characterised by the amount of significance attached to it. This built upon the work of Pratt and Ashforth (2003) who had suggested meaning may not confer meaningfulness, and that ‘significance’ was the determinant of meaningfulness.
Other research has built on Rosso et al’s work that Meaning has four sources: the self, others, the work context and spirituality. Given that “a person’s self-concept is malleable”, literature exploring the self as a source of meaning is further sub-divided into values, motivations and beliefs about work. I think the example of the Timpson business would be valuable for research given its strong commitment to employing people who have criminal records and are rebuilding their lives.
This is important. Values may be the most irreconcilable with work. Perhaps a deeply politically sensitive teacher would feel they simply could not teach in a private school. Motivations are likely to be divided between extrinsic (pay, titles, status) and intrinsic (self-esteem, doing something worthwhile) and beliefs about work are likely to be more organisational, and relates to how ‘central’ the role is to the worker’s life. In the world of deeper interest in Corporate Social Responsibility and ESG investing as well as Organisational Citizenship Behaviour (OCB), this is becoming increasingly significant for recruitment.
Meaningfulness is something that has been studied across what are collectively known as the ‘caring professions’ and also the priesthood. What caring does in terms of psychic attrition (especially things like end of life care) as well as giving a positive boost from caring and helping are still not well understood, but it may be that low pay in many of these roles is a function of the worker’s desire for meaningfulness in a role making them vulnerable to exploitation. I am tempted to try and research that. My son’s girlfriend works in mental health nursing, with an autism specialisation. Its skilled, its socially valuable, it clearly is meaningful to her and her colleagues, but is it rewarded appropriately and does the meaningfulness make the workers less demanding in pay negotiation?
Theorists propose that people see work as either i) a job (a focus on material outcomes) ii) a career (a focus on organisational structure and progress/status) or iii) a calling (a focus on work fulfilment — the work is an end in itself). Meaning that does not come from the self comes from either i) coworkers ii) leaders iii) groups and communities or iv) family. Combinations probably lead to enhanced meaningfulness but whether they are additive or multiplicative needs further study.
In a 2016 MIT Sloan Management Review paper, Bailey and Madden concluded that meaningfulness is personal not institutional, which begs questions of why should firms be bothered by the research. It remains to be tested whether meaningfulness is a constant or fluctuates, but their research noted that meaningfulness is rarely experienced in the moment, but often retrospectively. My work had a significant mentoring element. Although I question how much meaning my work had, I definitely have a sense of meaningfulness when I see ex-colleagues doing well in their careers, or if they call me now to ask for some advice and counsel.
However, in 2018 the same authors wrote about the ‘Five Paradoxes’ associated with meaningfulness, the most pertinent one for me given my Burnout experience was “deeply meaningful work can lead to poor outcomes for employee wellbeing”ie it unhealthily intrudes on personal lives. I am sure most of the people I know, and who will read this have a view on meaning at work and on meaningfulness. Many of those views will be cynical, sceptical or simply think it irrelevant — work is simply a contract between employer and employee which exchanges labour for reward.
I understand that, but in an era where we will live longer, and almost certainly have to work longer, even if we don’t particularly want to, I think this is an important field. I would love to hear some views and I end with a repeat of my earlier plea: When I design my research experiment and get the Ethics approvals, please support me by filling in the survey. Thank you. Burnsie.