The search for 'meaning' at work - BBC

Increasingly, employees say they want their work to matter. But what actually defines a 'meaningful' job?


Ask workers what’s most important to them in a job, and first on the list generally is pay cheque – perhaps obviously. But in a very close second, as data is beginning to show, people want their work to have meaning.

A 2020 McKinsey & Company surveyed showed 82% of employees believe it’s important their company has a purpose; ideally, one that contributes to society and creates meaningful work. And when a company has purpose, its people do, too. Separate McKinsey research from 2022 showed 70% of employees say their personal sense of purpose is defined by their work, and when that work feels meaningful, they perform better, are much more committed and are about half as likely to go looking for a new job.


The search for meaning at work is a relatively new idea, says Aaron De Smet, a senior partner at McKinsey. The Industrial Revolution, he says, made work very “transactional”: people worked and got paid money to live, with no greater purpose required or expected. But over time, as decent working conditions and a pay cheque became simple fundamentals, workers began to want more. In 2018, a survey of American professionals showed nine out of 10 workers would trade a percentage of their earnings for work that felt more meaningful. This drive for meaning is especially true of the newest generation to enter the workforce; in a survey of Gen Z workers from jobs site Monster, 70% of respondents ranked purpose as more important than pay.


As people’s jobs have become a significant part of their identities – and the way they spend most of their time – occupations have also become the place where they hope to derive at least some of their life’s meaning. People might define meaning in many ways, whether that’s working in a glossy ‘dream job’ or using particular skills to perform a necessary role. But however people frame meaning, experts say that in the workplace of the future, making people feel that what they’re doing matters, matters more than ever.


The modern search for meaning at work

The desire for meaningful work has been a slow and steady evolution that’s happened as society has become, on the whole, wealthier. As people’s basic needs for food and shelter were met, and the nature of work changed, people began to want more from their daily grinds.


Stephanie Bot, a clinical psychologist, notes that for a lot of people, identity has become closely tied to work. What we do, in many ways, defines who we are. “As the type of jobs we're in have evolved, people are now looking for a greater sense of self,” she says. It makes people feel like their lives have meaning, she adds, when their work does.

People also spend most of their time at work – it’s the activity that takes up the biggest chunk of waking hours – and even when they’re not actively working, many people are still thinking about work. The majority of younger people, in particular, report that it’s difficult to disengage. It becomes even more important, then, that this place people spend most of their time and mental energy mean something. "If people don't have outside time to get those needs met elsewhere,” says Bot, “they need to get more out of work.”


In the wake of the pandemic, meaningful work has become more important to people than ever before. It was a catalyst that realigned many people’s priorities. “Two-thirds of US employees said Covid caused them to reflect on their purpose in life,” says De Smet, of 2021 McKinsey research. “Everybody took this moment to step back and reassess. People were taking stock of their lives, and asking, ‘Does what I do matter? I should really spend my time on things that matter.’”


People’s search for meaning in their work contributed to the Great Resignation – a phenomenon that’s seen workers leave their jobs in droves throughout the past two years. “Some people said, ‘I’m not getting enough meaning from work, I want to work somewhere my purpose is more fulfilled by the work I do’,” says De Smet. “Or, they said, ‘I don’t feel the work I do is important to anyone. I want to go somewhere it feels like my work is valued by my organisation’.”


The meaning of meaning

But what does meaning, well, mean?


There’s no set definition, says Bot, because “how the person perceives their work is what makes it meaningful or not”.

There are a number of ways work can become meaningful, she says, some more obvious than others. “The obvious is when people are doing work that they feel contributes to the betterment of humanity,” she says. “But you don’t have to be feeding the disadvantaged in order to feel like your work is meaningful.”


For some people, work is meaningful if it gives them the chance to use their skills or flex creative muscles. “People should be doing work that’s aligned with their interests and their talents,” says Bot, “because alignment also creates meaning. If I feel like I'm using the best parts of me to make a contribution to whatever it is, I'm going to feel good about myself.”


Meaning is also derived from feeling like one’s presence matters – not just to the company’s goals or the bottom line, but to other members of someone’s team. “If they feel like they're part of a larger community, that’s meaningful,” continues Bot. “Since the pandemic, I'm hearing a lot more, ‘my work is soulless’. I have a strong feeling that is because they've lost their sense of community. Isolation interferes with meaning.”


A 2022 working paper by Brookings showed that relationships are, in fact, the most important determinant of meaningfulness at work. And those who feel a strong sense of relatedness, and thus get greater meaning from their jobs, are likely to put in more effort, according to the research.


None of this is limited to knowledge-work jobs. People in positions that seem somewhat lower-profile want to feel like they’re contributing to something larger than themselves, too, says Peter Watkins, UK-based university relations director of the CFA Institute, a finance education non-profit. “It’s important that people are able to talk about their job with pride,” says Watkins, “and that is connected to knowing that their small part in a larger organisation is leading to something a bit more worthwhile.”


Whatever it means, Gen Z wants it

Although the pandemic may have accelerated things, a desire for meaningful work has been growing for a long time, strengthening in each subsequent generation. And as Gen Z enters the workforce, say experts, young people fully expect their jobs to deliver.


In an analysis of workers across half a dozen countries, De Smet and his colleagues found that nearly 90% of workers between the ages of 18 and 25 said having a positive societal and environmental impact in their career was very high on their list of priorities. Watkins believes young people are certainly seeking something slightly different in employment. “We're seeing evidence of meaningful and positive-impact careers being more important, potentially, to this generation than earlier generations,” he says.


But he also believes new workers can derive meaning in other ways, like personal development. A job is meaningful, he explains, if it furthers a worker’s skills and experience. Organisations are recognising this, he adds; it’s the firms that offer meaningful enrichment opportunities and the promise of a larger positive impact that are landing top talent.

“Companies are becoming very savvy to this and realising, for example, that they need to demonstrate a long-term training commitment toward new recruits. Firms are aware that they need to kind of reassure them: join us and we will take you through a long period of nurturing,” he says. “[Another] way that companies are attracting talent is to say, ‘The work that you're doing will impact the environment, it will impact society around us’.”


The best way for companies to make workers feel their efforts matter, says Bot, is to find creative ways to show it. “People need to see the links of the work that they're doing to the greater good,” she says. Research shows that workers who speak to satisfied customers, even for a few minutes, feel a sense of greater purpose and have a tendency to perform better as a result. Companies need to let employees know they are valued, adds Bot. “They have to be finding ways to show them that they’re appreciated, and what they're doing matters.”


And whether companies can manage that also matters, because it’ll determine whether workers stay or go. In a post-pandemic world, and as Gen Z enters offices in force, meaningful work has ceased to be a luxury limited to those who are literally, as Bot puts it, “solving global hunger”. Instead, it’s something average workers want. Whether it’s because they’re making a measurable difference, because they feel like their work aligns with who they are, or simply because what they’re doing pays to support their lifestyle, workers now want to know their work has meaning.


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