The key to finding happiness at work is to be engaged in meaningful work, something we all know to be intrinsically true…or is it? We decided to test this through our research into meaningful work, initiated in 2019 and continuing with current data including research from 5000 individuals as at the end of 2022.
What is meaningful work?
The quest for meaning is an innate human need, and work has become one of the main ways we seek to fill that need. Work has always provided an income to live and support us and our families. However, the traditional sources of community and social support, such as knowing our neighbours and church attendance, have declined and in its place, work has become a primary source of personal identity, significance and meaning in life. Through our research we defined meaningful work as:
the importance an individual places on their work meeting their current personal beliefs, values, goals, expectations, and purpose in the context of their social and cultural environment.
What made our research unique, and a world-first, was that it combined both the psychological and sociological aspects of meaningful work. The psychological perspective is how we think about work ourselves as individuals; our experiences, beliefs, values, and attitudes. The sociological perspective is how the social and cultural systems around us assign value to our work activities; how much external views affect how meaningful we find our work, as well as our access to decent work.
How meaningful work equates to happiness
Unsurprisingly, 98% of people surveyed agree that having meaningful work is important. Further in our initial research in 2019, 71% agreed it was more important then than five years previously, and according to the McKinsey Quarterly Report 2022 meaningfulness in work was one of the top factors driving retention. We also saw that having meaningful work increases job satisfaction, improves career development, creates less work stress, and impacts positively on health and wellbeing.
In good news for leaders, there is also a positive impact for organisations. When your team members are enjoying meaningful work they have higher engagement levels, less sick leave, and are less likely to leave your organisation. Your people will have higher commitment to your organisation, and your overall organisational performance improves, even increasing your organisation’s performance during times of downturns or downsizing, therefore also improving the happiness of leaders.
The ‘how’ of happiness at work
If being engaged in meaningful work is so demonstrably good for both individuals and organisations, it begs the question, why aren’t more of us engaged in meaningful work? Finding and retaining meaningful work is a challenge for three key reasons.
Firstly everyone’s path to meaningful work is unique. Since meaningful work is tied to your individual wants and needs, as well as how it has been influenced by the society and culture around you, what we each seek in meaningful work is as individual as we are.
Secondly, to make it more complex, there are four factors of meaningful work; individual, job, organisational and societal, and many subsets within those factors. Determining which are important to you and your people requires monitoring and measuring to stay on top of them. It’s why we built the meaningful work profile tool and made it free and available for anyone to use.
Thirdly, your factors of meaningful work can change over time. Just as you have found yourself happy at work, something could change – either personally or professionally – which will shift how important the different factors of meaningful work might be. You might start a family or get a mortgage. You might get a promotion or a new job. Each is likely to change how you find work meaningful.
For both yourself, and for the teams you lead, finding and retaining meaningful work must be treated as a journey not a destination. Like health it’s something you can work at, and when something changes, you might learn from what has happened, and come back stronger.
Generating meaningful work
Creating meaningful work for yourself and others will become even more crucial in the coming years, given soft skill intensive occupations will account for two-thirds of all jobs by 2030, according to Deloitte. Human skills are increasingly needed in a rapidly changing workforce. Taking the time now to understand how the four factors of meaningful work combine for you, and for those in your team, and then continuing to work on improving those factors will not only set your apart from your peers and competitors, but you will also create happiness at work, something we all aspire to.