Finding Meaning in Work – The Case For and Against

June 19th, 2014

The Case For

Over the decades, research has indicated that having a job with purpose and meaning is the top priority for most employees (1). A significant body of research has also looked at the contributors to delivering meaning at work (2). These include autonomy, being in an environment that allows you to improve and working on a project from start to finish. However, the most important contributor to meaning is a belief that your job makes an important and positive difference in the lives of others. A recent article by Adam Grant at Wharton Business School summarises such a finding (3).

Grant’s article also outlines two ways in which meaningfulness at work can be improved:

  1. Connecting directly with the end user/beneficiary Grant cites the example of university fundraisers increasing their weekly fundraising by 400% when they met students whose scholarships were funded by their work.

  2. Crafting your job Not all jobs are designed to have a significant impact on others. In such instances, flexibility is required to add, remove, adjust or increase certain attributes of the role. For example, the retention, quality and effectiveness of hospital cleaners improved when they stepped up to provide emotional support to patients, in addition to their cleaning duties.

The Case Against

Expecting work to be deeply meaningful can be an unrealistic societal expectation and an unhelpful source of pressure. For some, rejecting such an expectation and ‘working to live’ can prove a very freeing and positive approach. Such an approach can lead to practical changes which improve things further e.g. working less. Indeed on the basis that it is viable for the individual and acceptable to the company, asking yourself the following question can really focus the mind:

‘Is less time at work, really worth the reduction in how much I will have to spend during my increased free time?’

For others a change of focus can be helpful: focusing on what you have, rather than what’s missing.

mch’s View

As with many things, a key ‘watch’ word here is balance. Given that you’re likely to have to spend a significant amount of your life working, it makes sense to get as much satisfaction out of it as you can. Furthermore, focusing on improving your work’s meaningfulness would seem a good place to start. Equally though, investing too much of yourself in your job, in attempt to find meaning, risks associating yourself too closely with your work…….and then what happens when work ends?

I believe a unifying perspective is that there is no bad job, just a bad fit. Such a perspective engenders an obligation. Emotions are catching; and so if you are unhappy at work it will almost certainly have an adverse effect on your colleagues as well as yourself. Consequently, finding a job that’s right for you is perhaps the most important way your jobs can make a positive difference in the lives of others.


(1) Changes in Workers, Work, and Organizations. Article found in Handbook of Psychology, W.F. Cascio.

(2) Integrating motivational, social, and contextual work design features: A meta-analytic summary and theoretical extension of the work design literature.Humphrey, Stephen E.; Nahrgang, Jennifer D.; Morgeson, Frederick P. Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol 92(5), Sep 2007, 1332-1356. See also Daniel Pink’s work on motivation.

(3) The #1 Feature of a Meaningless Job, Adam Grant, First Published: 30/1/14

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