The six essential ingredients that make work meaningful

Tired young man at the officeI don’t think I have ever met anyone who would not want their life to be meaningful. Yet, I find it surprising how little thought people apply to how they can make work meaningful. Sure, one of the reasons for working is to make money to pay for food, shelter, and other necessities, as well as for the added luxuries of modern living. But, considering how much of our time we spend at work, if we want life to be meaningful, we must also make work meaningful.

You are what you do at work

In medieval times people’s last name would often tell us what kind of profession they held; Smith, Baker, Milner and so on, a pattern that also shows up in other languages than English. These days, while those names still exist, they no longer indicate what someone does for work. Hence, after asking for your name, the most common question people put to you, is what kind of work you do. And no wonder. What we do for a living is a central part of who we are. A majority of people surveyed in the US say they get a sense of identity from their work. So, asking what someone works with will be likely to tell you something about who they are.

Working overtime

When we are not on holidays, the time we spend at work is getting longer and longer. The trend toward working extreme hours has been going up in the Western world since the 1970s. In the UK for example (and similar or higher figures are likely to apply to Australia) in 2005, a study found that 20% of high-skilled workers spent at least 50 hours a week at work. And even after leaving work at night, do they then leave work at work, or bring it with them home? With smart phones now being an item as common as a wallet, the separation between at-work and not-at-work is disappearing fast, and people are available for work matters almost any hour of the day. This can’t be good for our health, can it? Well, that depends…

Working can be good for your health

Being unemployed has devastating effects on people’s mental-psychological health. So, to have a job at all, is certainly better for you than not having one. But not only that, research in France and the UK indicates that a longer work life is correlated with better cognitive health. For people who had developed dementia later in life, it turned out that for each extra year they had worked past age 65, the dementia symptoms were delayed with six weeks or more.

There is also a strong link between job satisfaction and mental-psychological health. A big research project in 2005, at the University of Manchester, looked at several hundreds of studies that had been done before. They found that people who were happy in their jobs were much less likely to experience depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.

Analysing data from a 1990s longitudinal study involving more than 6000 people in the US, a Canadian research team were able to establish in 2014 that people who had a strong sense of purpose in their lives actually lived longer than those who did not.

Make work meaningful

Based on many years of academic surveys, Brent Rosso at Montana State University has put together a list of six attributes that make work meaningful.

  • Belonging: Who you do the work with is more important than the, perhaps mundane, nature of the work itself. The connections with the people you work with can provide a deep sense of satisfaction and meaning.
  • Authenticity: Being able to genuinely be yourself by going to work, perhaps because you are following a calling, being true to yourself as who you really are, will make work meaningful.
  • Purpose: When your work brings you in a direction of something that you truly value in life, and you can see your work as being a contribution to the movement toward a higher goal, work feels meaningful.
  • Self-worth: The work you do can make you feel valuable and valued. Being able to see milestones and goals being reached, even a small step at a time, adds to your job satisfaction.
  • Agency: Feeling like you are making a difference in the world through your work. Being in a role where your decisions matter in a bigger perspective gives meaning to the work you do.
  • Transcendence: Sacrificing your own comfort, for putting effort and energy into a greater cause, will give you a strong sense of meaning in you work.

At least one or two of these attributes can apply to all jobs, but the more of them you can manage the more you will benefit. But please do pay attention to the word manage in that sentence. When you make work meaningful, this also comes with the risk of sacrificing too much of yourself, your personal rest time, and ultimately then also your health.

Having a healthy work-life balance is always important to keep in focus, in particular when you want to make work meaningful. If you lose this balance, what would have been meaningful becomes a meaningless exercise, regardless of what you may achieve. For in truth, the journey is always more important than the destination.

To arrange a private session of Meaningful Life Coaching and find out how you can make your work and life more meaningful, contact me today!

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[ References to research can be found in the original article; “I work therefore I am” in the 25 June 2016 edition of New Scientist magazine. ]