At some point in all the stories I have heard from people who describe their memorable and positive experiences at work, those in which they had high job satisfaction, I hear words such as ‘passion,’ ‘committed,’ ‘drive,’ ‘I believed in what I was doing,’ or ‘it’s just what I do.’ They realize they derived great meaning from that work.
Having meaning in life is important to life satisfaction and subjective well-being.
What do we know about finding meaning at work?
This is the subject of a chapter in a newly published book, Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Work.
The chapter authors, Michael Steger and Bryan Dik, review relevant literature including the historical background, the factors which tend to contribute to meaning at work, and the known and proposed benefits of meaningful work. Below I present some of the highlights from the book chapter.Vocation comes from the Latin word vocare, meaning to call. In religious history there was a belief that people were called by God to engage in a religious vocation. A number of historical scholars noted that beyond a religious calling, anyone could be engaged in good work which served a greater purpose and a greater good. Work could be a call to love one’s neighbor through the duties that accompany their social place or station.
Steger and Dik note that there is a dignity that comes from work which is directly or indirectly a social service. They also comment that in modern days, the complexity and variety of work roles can sometimes lead to people becoming disconnected from their sense of service and meaning.
Referring to current research and thinking, calling often refers to how work contributes to one’s own sense of purpose and how it contributes to the greater good. “People have been summoned to meaningful, socially valued work by a transcendent call….the common core of these concepts includes both the sense that one’s work is meaningful and purposeful and that it serves a need beyond one’s self and one’s immediate concerns.”
The Components of Meaning
- Comprehension – people develop a sense of identity which comes from knowing “who they are, how their world works and how they fit in with and related to the life around them.” Forming social connections with co-workers, understanding the organization, and understanding personal roles in society all add to comprehension.
- Purpose – “people’s identification of, and intention to pursue, particularly highly valued, over-arching life goals.”
Benefits of meaning
Steger and Dik suggest that engaging in meaningful work can result in enhanced:
- work performance, effort, efficiency
- understanding of the organization
- psychological and physical well-being
- satisfaction with work
- faith in management
- team functioning
- attitudes at work
- intrinsic motivation to work
- mentoring and motivational skills
- sense of self-transcendence
Implications and Suggestions for Leaders
- Help people to understand how their roles are important in contributing to the purpose of the organization.
- Help people to see how their individual purposes can be achieved by contributing to the organization’s purpose, and thus they can use the organization as an instrument to find meaning at work.
- Ensure the organizational purpose is clearly connected to the greater good, and that organizational goals align with that purpose.
- Encourage social circles to thrive where workers see meaning as not just contributing to the work, but also to cultivating strong social connections
- Help workers to more deeply understand themselves and when they work at their best.
- Get to know employees and what drives their meaning and purpose; put them in places where these needs can be met.
“People and organisations prosper when they are engaged in meaningful work.”
Steger, M. F., & Dik, B. J. (2010). Work as meaning: Individual and organizational benefits of engaging in meaningful work. In P. A. Linley, S. Harrington, & N. Garcea (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Work. Oxford University Press.
Britton, K. (2008). Meaningful Work as Part of a Meaningful Life Positive Psychology News Daily.
Horne, A. (2009). Meaning and Work Make Australians Well. Positive Psychology News Daily.
Peterson, C., Park, N., & Seligman, M. E. (2005). Orientations to happiness and life satisfaction: The full life versus the empty life. Journal of Happiness Studies, 6, 25–41.
Vella-Brodrick, D. A., Park, N. A., & Peterson, C. (2008). Three ways to be happy: Pleasure, engagement and meaning – findings from Australian and US samples. Social Indicators Research, 90, 165-179.
Photos by Alice Tay and Amanda Horne