Welcome to Good Day at Work

Main Site
Main menu

Challenge #4: Meaningful work

Watch the video, keep your journal handy and set aside the 10 minutes needed to complete the challenge. Good luck!

Let's take a look at the science...

Research by Robertson Cooper on the key factors that help people to have a Good Days at Work has identified four main elements – positive emotions, achieving tasks, feeling connected and performing meaningful work. Each individual element has an important role to play so it’s worth looking at the scientific research that reveals the importance of each element. The information below focuses on the research related to meaningful work.

Meaningful work and Good Days at Work

A significant amount of many people’s life is spent working and on a daily basis more time may be spent working than any other activity. Work can play a positive role: it provides a structure to the day, it provides contact with other people, it can provide a sense of purpose and meaning, and it has economic benefits. For most people the economic benefits are important, and the income provided by work is an essential ingredient in overall health and wellbeing. Being paid is important but the other positive aspects of work can also contribute to overall health and wellbeing. On balance working is healthy and in general it is better than being unemployed. Unemployment is associated with poorer mental and physical health, so for most people working makes a positive contribution to overall life satisfaction (Waddell & Burton, 2006).

Although it’s true that, in general, work is healthy the benefits of working can vary considerably, not all work is healthy and desirable. One of the key components of healthy work is the extent to which it seems meaningful and worthwhile to the individual.

What is meaningful work?

Whether work is seen as meaningful or not is dependent on the individual. In a nutshell, work is meaningful when the individual employee recognises the importance of what he or she does and feels that it makes a positive contribution. In a way, the strength of meaningful work might be better seen by contrasting it with work that is completely meaningless. Imagine doing a job that you felt was completely pointless, benefitted no one and was just not worth doing – but you carry on doing it for the money. That would be pretty unsatisfying!

To be more specific work may be seen as meaningful if it is valued by other people – colleagues, or customers perhaps, or it might be meaningful because the contribution is makes to some overall work or societal goal is clear, or it may be valued for its own sake by the person doing the work. The more positive and meaningful associations that people feel for their work the more likely it is that they will feel it is worthwhile and valuable. Everyone likes to feel that the effort they put into something matters and is worthwhile.

The benefits of meaningful work

When people see their work as meaningful, they commit to it more wholeheartedly and get greater satisfaction from carrying out the work. In a work setting meaningful work is associated with a range of positive outcomes that are beneficial for both the individual employee and the overall organisation. There is clear research evidence linking meaningful work with better mental and physical health and meaningful work is also associated with work engagement, commitment, job satisfaction and job performance (Allan et al., 2019). So, people who experience meaning in their work are healthier and more satisfied with the jobs. They are also less likely to leave their jobs as meaningful work is linked to lower employee turnover.

The benefits of meaningful work extend beyond job satisfaction to wider life satisfaction – so that people who experience meaning in their work are happier with life in general; they are also better organisational citizens – for example, being likely to engage with tasks outside their specific job tasks in order to support and help others at work (Allan et al., 2019).

The direct health and satisfaction outcomes from meaningful work are important for individual employees but meaningful work also plays an indirect role in the impact of work-related stress. For many people at work there will be times when pressure builds up –and maybe through work overload, conflicting objectives or lack of resources it becomes too difficult to cope with. If this happens now and again but then things return to a more stable level the damage (mental and physical health and work performance) may not be too severe and may not be lasting. If the pressure remains at an overload level for long periods, then burn out or other health problems are more likely. There is evidence that the negative impact of work-related stress is worse when work lacks meaning for the jobholder (Lease et al., 2019).

Enhancing the meaning of work

It’s clear from the above that work that has meaning and is valued by the job holder is better for both employees and the organisation. This suggests that it makes sense for everyone to try to ensure that work is as meaningful as possible.

A good starting point for enhancing meaningfulness at work is to check, maybe via a survey, how job holders currently feel about the meaningfulness of their personal role. Once a starting point is established there are broadly two main approaches to enhancing meaning: changing the perspective of the employee or changing the work itself. Both approaches are perfectly legitimate. Changing the perspective could be useful and could enable someone to see more clearly the meaning of their role – and hence to derive more satisfaction from carrying it out.

A point to remember is that there are wide individual differences between people and what seems like meaningful work to one person may seem less so to someone else. It’s perfectly possible for two people doing the same job to feel very differently about their work. This is an important point because it implies that even when one, or more people see work as meaningful, another person may not. The different perspectives may be based on different values. When this is the case, it may be difficult to create a feeling of meaningfulness as it will be necessary to align the nature of the work with the individual’s values – and in some cases this may be difficult or even impossible, although honest and thorough explanations of the purpose and value of the work may trigger a change of view. In many work situations the lack of meaning is much more likely because job holders cannot see the full picture for their contribution and therefore cannot see it’s value.

The other approach to enhancing meaning is to tackle the work itself and make changes that provide the job holder with a greater sense of meaning. Of course, in many settings the changes that could be made may be very limited but nevertheless there may be critical shifts that could transform the level of meaning that the job holder recognises. A useful route for exploring possible changes is through the use of job crafting (Wrzesniewski & Dutton, 2001). The main advantage of job crafting over alternative approaches to job redesign is that it is driven by the job holder. Essentially, job crafting allows the job holder to propose amendments to the way that they do their work. This might involve either of two main types of change to the job itself: task crafting, where the actual tasks involved in the job are changed or relational crafting, changing the personal interactions that the job holder routinely has with other people. Research on job crafting has demonstrated that it can be a very effective method for enhancing the meaningfulness of a job (Tims et al., 2016).

Leaders and supervisors have an important impact on the health and wellbeing of their workforce; good leadership is associated with better psychological and physical health. Meaningful work further enhances the positive impact that leaders can have on psychological and physical health. For example, the benefits of transformational leadership styles are well-established (Wang et al., 2011) and known to provide positive health and performance benefits. Transformational leaders behave honourably, they hold high expectations of people, they encourage challenge, treat people as individuals and respect and recognise their achievements. People being led by transformational leaders are more likely to see their work as meaningful and in turn, seeing work as meaningful enhances the positive impact of transformational leadership on health and wellbeing – a win-win situation (Arnold et al., 2007).

A downside to meaningfulness

Although, in general high levels of meaning lead to better wellbeing and satisfaction, the engagement, commitment, high levels of effort that are associated with meaningful work may trigger less beneficial outcomes. There are two different circumstances where high levels of meaningfulness can have a negative impact: over commitment and underemployment.

Sometimes the level of energy that a person commits to their role may actually outstrip their personal resources and over time will create mental and physical health problems. This situation can arise when people feel so strongly about the meaning and purpose of their role that they over-commit time and energy, leading, in the long run to lower levels of satisfaction and potential health problems.

Underemployment arises when someone recognises the importance of their role but is not given the opportunity to make their best contribution. In general, underemployment is associated with poorer levels of overall wellbeing. There is some evidence that the damage to wellbeing of underemployment is made even worse when levels of meaningfulness are high (Allan et al., 2020).

Key sources

  • Allan, B. A., Batz-Barbarich, C., Sterling, H. M., & Tay, L. (2019). Outcomes of Meaningful Work: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Management Studies, 56(3), 500–528. https://doi.org/10.1111/joms.12406
  • Allan, B. A., Rolniak, J. R., & Bouchard, L. (2020). Underemployment and Well-Being: Exploring the Dark Side of Meaningful Work. Journal of Career Development, 47(1), 111–125. https://doi.org/10.1177/0894845318819861
  • Arnold, K. A., Turner, N., Barling, J., Kelloway, E. K., & McKee, M. C. (2007). Transformational Leadership and Psychological Well-Being: The Mediating Role of Meaningful Work. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 12(3), 193–203. https://doi.org/10.1037/1076-8998.12.3.193
  • Lease, S. H., Ingram, C. L., & Brown, E. L. (2019). Stress and Health Outcomes: Do Meaningful Work and Physical Activity Help? Journal of Career Development, 46(3), 251–264. https://doi.org/10.1177/0894845317741370
  • Tims, M., Derks, D., & Bakker, A. B. (2016). Job crafting and its relationships with person-job fit and meaningfulness: A three-wave study. Journal of Vocational Behavior. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jvb.2015.11.007
  • Waddell, G., & Burton, a K. (2006). Is Work Good Well-Being ? Good for Your Health. The Stationery Office, United Kingdom. Wang, G., Oh, I. S., Courtright, S. H., & Colbert, A. E. (2011).
  • Transformational leadership and performance across criteria and levels: A meta-analytic review of 25 years of research. In Group and Organization Management (Vol. 36, Issue 2, pp. 223–270). https://doi.org/10.1177/1059601111401017
  • Wrzesniewski, A., & Dutton, J. E. (2001). Crafting a Job: Revisioning Employees as Active Crafters of Their Work. The Academy of Management Review, 26, 179–201. https://doi.org/10.2307/259118