Think your job is meaningless? Think again

Author: Alistair Cox, Chief Executive, Hays plc

In our lifetimes, each one of us will spend the majority of the time we have on Earth doing one of two things: sleeping (26 years) and working (13 years). That’s right, 113,880 hours of our lives will be spent working - that’s more time than we will spend on holiday or even socialising. And, as we are now living longer, the amount of time we will spend at work is only set to increase.

It goes without saying that that the career we choose to follow is a dominant force in our lives, not just in terms of the amount of time we spend doing it, but also in terms the impact it has on us. It forms part of our identity and shapes how we feel about ourselves. It has the power to make us feel invigorated, inspired, determined and motivated, but it can also leave us feeling bored, lost, stressed and undervalued. And these feelings we have about our work, good or bad, seep into every other aspect of our lives, whether we realise it or not.

What gets us out of bed each and every morning for 13 years?

I think most of us would agree that it’s not the pay packets or office perks that ultimately get us out of bed every single morning, time and time again, for years and years. In fact, what really drives us is the sense of meaning and purpose we get from what we do every day.

The need to find meaning in our work is nothing new. In fact, in his 1974 book Working, Studs Terkel noted the happiest employees share one common attribute: They had “a meaning to their work over and beyond the reward of the paycheck.” And the same is still true – recent research found workers would be willing to forgo a huge 23 per cent of their future lifetime earnings ‘in order to have a job that is always meaningful’.

Are we losing a sense of meaning in our jobs?

As Ryan T. Hartwig, associate professor at Azusa Pacific University in Greater Los Angeles argues in his Tedx Talk, in years gone by (I’m talking pre-Industrial Revolutions) work was inherently more meaningful. Why? Well, most were working together with friends and family and could tangibly see the impact of that work on the community around them. You worked where you lived, and therefore the meaning of your role was plain to see and to feel.

Then the first Industrial Revolution happened. Work was standardised in order to increase efficiencies. Jobs, and the processes and tasks associated with them fundamentally changed. But at the same time, so did the relationship people had with their work: the gap between their working lives and ‘real lives’ got bigger and bigger, and the work itself became more alienating as managers removed any autonomy. This all made it harder for workers to feel quite the same sense of meaning from their roles in the same way they had in years gone by.

And today, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is upon us. The rate of technological advancement we’re seeing and its impact on our evolving world of work is unprecedented. Our jobs are changing yet again, with most of us facing the prospect of working alongside machines in the not too distant future. So, does this, combined with the fact that most will be working for longer, mean it will become even harder for us to find meaning in our work?

Are some jobs more meaningful than others?

The short answer is no.

When people think about meaning at work, many wrongly assume this is reserved only for those who work for organisations that have a direct, positive impact on the world around us – for instance, charities, schools, hospitals etc. That thinking is wrong.

You don’t have to be saving lives every day or teaching the next generation to feel a sense of meaning in what you do. I believe that meaning can be found and built into different parts of our roles, and that what is meaningful to one person, might not be meaningful to another. For example, you may find meaning in the opportunity to upskill, to become an expert, in belonging to a high performing team, in having your ideas listened to or experiencing autonomy as Morten Hansen, Ph.D., and Dacher Keltner Ph.D, explain.

We’re all different and we all derive meaning from different things. And many would argue, that, actually, as the machines take away some of our more predictable, monotonous tasks, the more opportunity we have to derive real meaning from those parts of our jobs that require more of the human touch.

How to build more meaning into your work, no matter what you do

Even if, admittedly, you’re not inherently motivated by your company’s mission, it is, in fact, possible to find and build meaning in other aspects of your day-to-day work:

  • Focus on the bigger picture

Stop assuming that your job isn’t as meaningful as others. Instead, start to see the real, tangible value you and your skills bring. This might not be immediately obvious at first glance, but trust me, the impact you’re having is real.

In their book ‘Make Your Job a Calling’, Bryan J Dick and Ryan D Duffy give a great example of this shift in perspective and perception: three workers doing the task of breaking large rocks into small rocks were asked what their jobs were. The first worker responded: “I’m making little ones out of big ones”, the second worker responded, “I’m making a living” and the third said “I’m making a cathedral”.

What I think this example really illustrates is the power of understanding and appreciating the impact you’re having on the bigger picture or the end goal. As Emily Esfahani Smith, editor at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution puts it: “…you can find meaning in nearly any role in nearly any organisation. After all, most companies create products or services to fill a need in the world, and all employees contribute in their own ways. The key is to become more conscious about the service you’re providing — as a whole and personally.”

I think the takeaway here is to come off autopilot and start to become more self-aware of the impact you are having every day. Change the perception you have of yourself and the work you do, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t.

  • Spend time with the people your work impacts the most

One way to help yourself see the impact your work has on the end goal is to spend some time with the people that your work helps – that might be a customer, client, or an internal stakeholder. Doing so will help you see the value they get from the work you do, which in itself can be hugely meaningful.

We can all often feel detached from the end goal or bigger picture, so much so that it can be completely forgotten in our minds. Over time, this can be hugely damaging. The people we’re impacting can also feel like a world away (and often they are) so, it’s no wonder that we often lack a sense of meaning in our work.

So, every now and again, consciously and proactively remind yourself of why you are doing the job you are doing, and the impact you’re having.

  • Leaders and managers must reinforce the bigger picture

If you are a leader or a manager, it’s your responsibility to help keep the bigger picture alive for your team members and overcome the disconnect.

As business professor and management consultant David Ulrich and psychologist Wendy Ulrich say in this Forbes interview: ‘Leaders are in a great position to articulate the values a company is trying to enact and to shape the story of how today’s work connects with those values. This means sharing stories of how the company is making a difference for good in the lives of real people, including customers, employees, and communities.”

These types of conversations should happen continuously. So, every time you brief your team on a new task or project, always link it back to the impact it will have on the bigger picture, and clearly explain its purpose. You’ll soon find that your team are finding more meaning in what they do.

  • Craft your job in a way that injects more meaning

But meaning isn’t just found in and built from more consciously connecting what you do to the end goal. It can be found in each task and process you embark on as you arrive at the office every day.

Amy Wrzesniewski, professor of organisational behaviour at Yale School of Management has done a huge amount of research into the concept of “job crafting”. This is defined as “…changing the boundaries and conditions of job tasks and job relationships and of the meaning of the job.”

In a nutshell, crafting your job to play to your strengths, passions and interests will allow you to think differently about the impact you’re having on the organisation and thus help you to build more meaning into what you do.

This isn’t about fundamentally changing your role and its objectives. It’s about understanding where your unique strengths lie and changing the way you do things in order to play to those strengths. This will help ensure you’re enjoying what you’re doing (we often enjoy work the most when we are using skills we’re good at), and that you’re doing your job well – both of which will help you find more meaning in your every day.

Of course, before you start crafting your job and changing the way you do things, you first need to understand what you are accountable for in your role. After all, whatever changes you make must help you meet and exceed your key objectives.

But as Hartwig says “…see that as a starting line, not a finishing line.” Don’t be trapped by the confines of your job description. Yes, get the things that need to be done, done (and do them well), but also have the courage to shape your job and its tasks in a way that you find most meaningful and give you the most sense of purpose.

  • Leaders and managers - help your team members craft their jobs

If you manage a team, you must challenge any longstanding thinking you have that certain tasks must be done in a certain way, by everyone. Instead, understand that your job is to recognise the unique strengths and intrinsic motivators of each of your team members, and gauge what they find most personally meaningful in their every day.

So, bring your team together to discuss in an open forum which tasks they each enjoy and derive the most personal meaning from. You might be surprised at which tasks appeal to which people. Once you have that information, work with them to reassign, redesign or redistribute key tasks in a way that ensures every member of your team remains consistently productive and fulfilled.

As I said earlier, we’re all different and we all derive meaning from different things. So, remember that not everyone in the team has to do things the same way – in fact, you’ll probably get better results if they don’t.

  • Give your team the space to build meaning into their work

This isn’t about dictating how exactly each task must be done. It’s about empowering your people to do their work in a way that they think will deliver the most value, and in a way that will play to their key strengths. And, if they are given the freedom to do this, they will be able to build a sense of personal meaning into their work.

A good example of this in action is Four Seasons Hotels, whose staff are told: “Do whatever you think is right when servicing the customer”. This ethos is ingrained in their culture, as Founder and Chairman Isadore Sharp states: “Do unto others as you have them do unto you - that was a code of ethics that really formed the basis of Four Seasons Corporate Culture and our most important decision even to this day.”

When a member of your team approaches you with a change of process or a new idea, don’t shut it down, embrace it. Trust them to make the right changes that will help them become more efficient and fulfilled. Allow them to challenge you and switch up your thinking. After all, this kind of proactivity in role crafting should not be discouraged, it should be held up and celebrated as a role model to others.

So, the next time someone asks you what you do for a living, how will you answer? Will you reply: “I’m just an accountant” or “I’m just an office manager”? I hope not. As Hartwig says, this type of self-sabotage just perpetuates the idea that somehow some jobs are more ‘meaningful’ than others. They’re not. In some cases, you might need to work a little harder to build the meaning, but I hope this blog has helped you realise that it can be done.

Thank you for reading! For more useful advice and insights about the world of work, visit our dedicated blog page here or click on one of the links below.

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