Why do you work? Is it for the money? Perhaps your answer is more about supporting your lifestyle? While either of these answers is understandable, in the long run the question is, how fulfilling is your work? Is work a means to an end, a place you occupy for most of your day, week, month? For a growing number of people in the workforce, work, as a means to an end, is no longer acceptable.

In my book, The Optimistic Workplace, I cite research that indicates 71 percent of college students place meaningful work as a key factor defining career success. However, It's not only the younger generation that finds meaning important. Joanna Barsh of McKinsey and Company, a top tier consulting firm, found through her research that executives place meaning in their work as the strongest influence on life satisfaction.

Meaningful work and meaning in work is a noble pursuit. What is it, though? More importantly, how do you get it?

Meaning and the Workplace

I define meaning as the experience of significance that comes from what you are doing. According to retired professor and author John Ballard, meaning motivates us. In his book, Decoding the Workplace, Ballard explains that we need to look at what we hold as important in our lives, personally and professionally, to begin to understand what is meaningful. Through this examination, Ballard explains, we'll find patterns revealing what holds meaning for us.

When you do meaningful work, it imparts a level of significance to your day. You have a clear understanding of the value of what you're doing and how it helps others. Meaningful work engages you; You are more committed to the work and are willing to do whatever is required to see a successful outcome. Employers and leaders should make a purposeful effort to avoid hollow work and small-minded visions, as Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers explain in their book, A Simpler Way.

Researchers Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden list these qualities of meaningful work:

  1. Self-Transcendent: "Work that matters to others more than just to themselves."
  2. Poignant: "Work full of meaning at moments associated with mixed, uncomfortable, or even painful thoughts and feelings, not just a sense of unalloyed joy and happiness."
  3. Episodic: Work isn't always meaningful, "but rather that an awareness that work was meaningful arose at peak times that were generative of strong experiences."
  4. Reflective: "Meaningfulness was rarely experienced in the moment, but rather in retrospect."
  5. Personal: "Work that is meaningful is often understood by people, not just in the context of their work, but also in the wider context of their personal life experiences."

Meaning in work is the inherent value of the work. It's not the work itself, but the benefit you experience from doing the work. When there is meaning in your work, it aligns with your personal values. It doesn't matter the type of work you do; you can experience meaning in it.

The Value of Meaning in Your Work

So, what happens when you have meaning in your work and are doing meaningful work?

  1. Work at your peak potential: Meaningful work is highly engaging. It calls forth your ability to focus and exhibit your best skills.
  2. More satisfying life: Because meaning is linked to your personal values, when you have it in your work, you experience a deeper sense of fulfillment in your life. A sense of wholeness emerges, positioning you for greater harmony in work and your personal life.
  3. Richer relationships: As researchers Bailey and Madden learned from their research, relationships played an important role in meaningfulness. In a work context, rich relationships, those that are gratifying, make it easier and more enjoyable to do the work and enjoy the experience.

Nowhere in the research that I've read was money mentioned as a meaningfulness influencer. The experience of meaning comes from within. It's a personal experience that can be either a positive or a difficult situation. The presence of meaning and the experience of it, however, lead to powerful emotions that are deeply satisfying and memorable. It is a leader's great challenge to shape the environment to help create meaning in an employees' work experience.