What do you do? That’s often one of the first questions people ask when they meet someone new — not surprising given that most adults spend most of
their waking hours at work and that our jobs can influence our
lives even outside the workplace. Our work can be a big part
of our identity and offer insights into what is important to us,
making it a rich area of psychological study.
Several recent studies have concentrated on a particular
aspect of work: finding meaning in it. Through their research,
experts have gleaned new insights, showing that meaningful
work is good for the worker and for the company — and that
even employees in tiresome jobs can find ways to make their
duties more meaningful.
“Work can make people miserable. Losing work can make
people pretty unhappy, too,” says Michael F. Steger, PhD, an
associate professor of counseling psychology and applied social
psychology at Colorado State University. “So are there ways to
use work to improve lives?”
In a 2010 review, Brent D. Rosso, PhD, and colleagues noted
that finding meaning in one’s work has been shown to increase
motivation, engagement, empowerment, career development,
job satisfaction, individual performance and personal
fulfillment, and to decrease absenteeism and stress (Research in
Organizational Behavior, 2010).
Unfortunately, meaningful work may not be the norm.
According to State of the American Workplace, a new report by
Gallup Inc., only 30 percent of the U.S. workforce is engaged
in their work — in other words, they’re passionate about
their work and feel strongly committed to their companies.
The remaining 70 percent of American workers are either
“not engaged” or “actively disengaged” in their work (Gallup,
2013). Gallup defines unengaged workers as those who are
“checked out,” putting in time but without much energy or
passion. Actively disengaged workers, meanwhile, act out on
their unhappiness, taking up more of their managers’ time
and undermining what their co-workers accomplish.
That disengagement takes a toll. Actively disengaged workers,
the report states, are more likely to steal from their organizations,
negatively influence co-workers, miss workdays and drive
customers away. According to Gallup, active disengagement costs
U.S. companies $450 billion to $550 billion per year.
Of course, there are different ways to find meaning in one’s
work, says Michael G. Pratt, PhD, a professor of management
and organization at Boston College. To illustrate this, he points
to the old tale of three bricklayers hard at work. When asked
what they’re doing, the first bricklayer responds, “I’m putting
one brick on top of another.” The second replies, “I’m making
six pence an hour.” And the third says, “I’m building a cathedral
— a house of God.”
“All of them have created meaning out of what they’ve done,
but the last person could say what he’s done is meaningful,”
Pratt says. “Meaningfulness is about the why, not just about
Something that’s meaningful for one person may be
inconsequential for another, however. What makes work
worthwhile to you probably depends on your culture, your
socioeconomic status and how you were taught to see the world,
according to Pratt. An academic might find value in scholarship,
for instance. “But a firefighter might look at an academic and
ask, ‘Are you helping people on a daily basis? If not, it’s not
worthwhile work at all.’”
People assign significance to their work in a variety of
ways, as Pratt and doctoral students Douglas Lepisto and
Camille Pradies describe in a chapter in the 2013 book
“Purpose and Meaning in the Workplace.” Some may derive
meaning not from the job itself, but from the fact that it
allows them to provide for their families and pursue non-
work activities that they enjoy. Others may find meaning in
being able to advance themselves and be the best they can
be. People with a craftsmanship orientation take pride in
performing the job well. Those with a service orientation find
purpose in the ideology or belief system behind their work.
Still others extract meaning from the sense of kinship they
experience with co-workers.
Craftsmanship, service and kinship orientations are
especially likely to be meaningful, as they all point to something
beyond the individual, says Pratt.
Steger, too, has zeroed in on the idea that meaningful work
is bigger than one’s self. He and his colleagues recently created
a tool for measuring meaningful work (Journal of Career
Assessment, 2012). This “Work and Meaning Inventory” assesses
three components, he says: The feeling that the work has some
purpose, evidence that the meaning derived from work feeds
into the meaning one feels in life as a whole, and the idea that
the work somehow benefits a greater good.
As one might imagine, meaningful work and job satisfaction
are linked, says Steger. In his 2012 paper, he found that having
meaningful work predicts job satisfaction. But meaningful
work was actually better than job satisfaction at predicting
absenteeism – people who found their work more meaningful
were less likely to miss work than people who merely reported
being satisfied with their jobs. Meaningful work was also
correlated with life satisfaction and less depression.
A higher calling
Researchers have found that workers who feel a higher
calling to their jobs are among the most content. Take
zookeepers, for example. Though more than eight in 10
zookeepers have college degrees, their average annual income
is less than $25,000. The typical job description involves