In his introduction to Working, the landmark 1974 oral history of work, Studs Terkel positioned meaning as an equal counterpart to financial compensation in motivating the American worker.
“[Work] is about a search…for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor,” he wrote.
Among those “happy few” he met who truly enjoyed their labors, Terkel noted a common attribute: They had “a meaning to their work over and beyond the reward of the paycheck.” Employees expect something deeper than a paycheck in return for their work. The “American dream” forces us to have a full-time job plus side hustles just to live the life we think we need to be based on social media standards. This forces us to sit down after many years and think about what truly mattered and if what we did gave back in any way.
It all comes down to how you felt slaving away for hours on end with this million-dollar question- “just how much is meaning worth to you?” If you could find a career that gave you meaning, how much of your salary would you be willing to cut to do it?
On average, American workers said they’d be willing to give 23% of their future lifetime earnings in order to have a job that was meaningful. The current list of essentials might be due for an update- food, clothing, shelter, and meaningful work.
How much is meaning worth to the business?
Employees who do meaningful work spend one additional hour per week working and take two fewer days of PTO per year. In terms of hours worked, businesses will see more work time put in by employees who find greater meaning in their work. More importantly, employees who find work meaningful have significantly higher job happiness, which is known to go with increased productivity. Additional business value comes in the form of retained employees. Employees who find work highly meaningful are 69% less likely to plan on quitting their jobs within the next 6 months and have job positions that are 7.4 months longer on average than employees who find work lacking in meaning.
Make Every Worker a Knowledge Worker.
Research shows that all work becomes knowledge work when workers are given the chance to make it so. That’s good news for companies and employees. When workers experience works as knowledge work, work feels more meaningful.
All workers can gain from having more creativity in their roles. Offer your employees opportunities to creatively engage in their work, share knowledge, and feel like they’re co-creating the process of how work gets done.
Often, the people who work in customer service or hospitality, have tons of insight into how things can be improved. Engaging employees by getting their feedback can have a huge impact on employees’ experience of meaning and helps improve company workflow. Coaching and mentoring are invaluable tools to help employees in all roles and levels find deeper inspiration in their work.
Work takes our time and in return, we expect to find personal value from those efforts. Managers and organizations seeking to give meaning will need to proactively support their employees’ pursuit of personal growth and development alongside the more traditional professional development opportunities.
4 Ways to Make Your Job Meaningful
How does working hard make a job meaningful? Well, hard work often equals success. When you succeed in your job, you help others in your department succeed in their jobs. When your whole department succeeds, the company succeeds.
Hard work is easier than avoiding work. Think about it- when you have to worry if your boss knows how much time you’re spending playing on Instagram, that adds another layer of complexity to your job. When you’re working hard all of the time, and your boss drops by, it’s not a big deal.
When you stay on top of your work, you automatically lower stress levels. If you start to feel like your job just isn’t meaningful—it’s just work, which adds additional stress on top of your load.
Look Outside of Your Job
Does your meaningful work have to be your day job? In short, no. Your day job can fund your meaningful work. Work-life balance means having a life. Whether it’s through your family, your church, your charity, your hobby, or whatever is important to you, you need funds to support it. You may think of your job as something that doesn’t give to the community and doesn’t make peoples' lives better, but if it provides for your family, then it is meaningful. You find your meaning in how you spend that money.
Consider Changing Jobs
If you can’t see how your current job is meaningful and you can't figure out a way to make it meaningful work, then maybe it’s time for you to move on. If your job doesn’t bring you joy or allow you to support your family- then maybe it’s not the right job for you. You need to ask yourself three questions,
What am I passionate about?
What are my values?
What am I gifted with?
These three questions can tell you very quickly the direction you need to go. No matter your age, you’re not stuck, even if you think you are. You may have limitations based on your current situation, but you’re never truly stuck. If you want to find meaning in your job and work, figure out what you would need to have for it to become meaningful to you, and then go find it. Meaningful work doesn’t have to be charity work either, it just has to make you happy.
Treat Each Other With Kindness
A kind person can change everyone's day from boring to fun. Yes, work is still working, and sometimes it’s hard, but working with the right people can make you look forward to going to work, even if the job is hard.
For example, a guy who worked for a brewery as a delivery man could have seen his job as hard work and basic. His job was to drive from restaurant to restaurant, carrying huge kegs of beer and taking out the old, empty ones. But, the people in many restaurants cheered when the beer guy came in with the beer kegs. Their act of kindness changed his job from basic to one that he loved.
If you stop and ask about someone’s day, or follow up on how their new hobby is going, you’ll make them feel loved and appreciated. That’s meaningful. The advantage of this for you is, as you are kind to others, the kindness spreads, and people will be helpful to you.
The old contract between employer and employee being the exchange of money for labor has run its course. Meaningful work only has positives. Employees work harder and quit less, and gravitate to supportive work cultures that help them grow. The value of meaning to both individual employees, and to organizations, is ready to be taken by organizations prepared to act.