That makes sense to Pratt. “My grandfather was a glazier,
and he found his work quite meaningful. When I asked my
grandfather, ‘What did you do today?’ he could tell me exactly
what he built,” he says. In his own university job, Pratt says
he might spend a workday writing a few pages and sitting in
meetings. At the end of the day, there’s nothing concrete to
show for his efforts.
“If we’re not doing anything tangible, if we don’t know
what the standards are for good work versus bad work, then
it’s difficult for people to try to figure out why their work is
meaningful,” he says.
Make your own meaning
Fortunately, you don’t have to become a glazier or a zookeeper
to find meaning at work, says Jane E. Dutton, PhD, a professor
of business administration and psychology at the Ross School of
Business at the University of Michigan. Rather, you can redefine
your job in personally meaningful ways, through a process
she and her colleagues describe as “job crafting” (Purpose and
Meaning in the Workplace, 2013).
“Meaning doesn’t take money,” she says. “At any rank,
people can make different meanings of their work, and also of
themselves at work.”
Employees can shape their work experiences in three broad
ways, Dutton says. The first is by altering the tasks they perform.
Every job has elements that make it feel like, well, work. But
most employees do have some leeway to tweak their duties.
“You can be an architect of the tasks,” Dutton says.
Employees might choose to spend more energy on existing
tasks they find particularly gratifying, for example. A professor
might find she’s most fulfilled when interacting with students.
She may decide to limit the time she contributes to university
committees so that she has more time to work with students.
In some cases, adding fulfilling tasks can benefit you even if it
increases your overall workload.
Second, Dutton says, employees can change relationships in
the workplace. “We never make meaning in a vacuum. Work is
very social,” she says. Spending time with toxic co-workers can
drain meaning from the most gratifying jobs. But just a few
moments spent collaborating with a valued colleague can be
reinvigorating. “Even if you talk to someone for five minutes, if
it’s someone you have a high-quality connection with, it’s like
taking a vitamin,” she says.
Finally, a person can use cognitive restructuring to reframe
the way he or she thinks about work. Steger mentions an
accountant who worked at a community college. She found
her work very meaningful not because she kept the accounts
balanced, but because she felt her work allowed others to
advance themselves through education. “For all these things in
our jobs that we just don’t like, we can take a step back and link
it to the things that really matter,” he says.
The zookeepers also illustrate the power of framing your
job to see the big picture. They are able to find meaning in
cleaning cages because they believe such tasks are vital to the
bigger mission — not only caring for individual animals, but
in fact helping to preserve entire species. “The more you look
for the benefits of what you’re doing, the more it feeds you
psychologically,” Dutton says.
Job crafting can pay off for employees and employers. As
Steger has shown, finding one’s work meaningful is associated
with life satisfaction and overall well-being. Organizations, too,
benefit from workers who are invested in their jobs. The Gallup
report found that engaged workers are most likely to build
new products and services, attract new customers and drive
However, Dutton notes, there is a potential drawback to
emphasizing how employees can create their own meaning
at work. “People could argue that this contributes to how
organizations can extract labor from people,” she says. In other
words: “I’ll give you a crappy job and it’s up to you to make
something good out of it,” she adds.
Despite that risk, however, Dutton and her colleagues see
plenty of value in helping people find ways to make the most
of what they have. After all, workers may not have the power to
change their organizations, but they can change the way they
frame their own duties.
Dutton is particularly interested in helping people in low-status jobs. Surprisingly, she’s found that such workers may
actually be in a better position to craft their jobs than are people
at higher ranks (Journal of Organizational Behavior, 2010).
She found people with less power and autonomy in
their organizations actually saw more opportunities to
influence and build trust with other people. For instance,
one customer-service representative who Dutton interviewed
asserted herself with her supervisor and asked to join a
website committee — a role that added tasks to her formal
job description but allowed her to do something she was
passionate about. By contrast, high-status employees were
reluctant to impose on others, and were therefore less likely
to involve other people in crafting their jobs.
Having witnessed too many workers constrained by
Michigan’s depressed economy, Dutton says she’s seen firsthand
how small changes can make a big difference for individuals,
especially those at lower ranks.
“These are people who were happy to have a job, but the
work stunk. I could see the power of helping them have hope,”
she says. “It shouldn’t change the push for organizations to
be fairer and better. But at the same time, I want more self-empowerment for workers to craft their work in ways that will
make it less depleting and more enriching.” n
Kirsten Weir is a writer in Minneapolis.