The un-meaningful work blues: what to do when you feel your job lacks meaning

Recent national and international evidence point to a need for meaning and purpose in our work. Studies have shown that meaningful work is connected to a raft of work-related outcomes: job satisfaction, engagement, productivity, and retention among them. Some surveys have found millennials and women to be particularly sensitive to the need for meaningful work. Based off my experience, I would contend that individuals transitioning from the military or returning to work after maternity leave – drastically different undertakings but both rich in meaning – need extra care in this arena. The need for meaningful work is something that workplaces should take seriously, but also something that we as employees can benefit from reflecting on. While many of us at times feel like our work lacks in meaning, most jobs are meaningful: they have outcomes that impact others in positive ways and make the world a better place. However, if you are disconnected from those outcomes you are less likely to feel like your work is meaningful.

What is meaningful work? Recent academic inquiry has underscored the importance of work being meaningful when it is significant: having a broader purpose (serving a greater good in some way) and a level of self-realisation (autonomy, authenticity and self-expression). One way to make sense of our need for meaningful work is through the lens of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

We can see that even if your workplace ticks all the boxes lower down in the pyramid, you may still feel unsatisfied if that final ‘meaningful work’ box is currently un-tickable. If you are an innovative, motivated person who is readily employable you may be thinking about seeking work in another job or even re-training for another career where you are able to see yourself reaching the pyramid apex.

However, before acting I would argue that you should take the time to see if your job is really unmeaningful or whether you are simply not currently experiencing the connections that show how your work is meaningful. To get started, here are three ideas you might like to try:

  1. Ask your employer to include you in the whole project cycle, from start to finish. This will give you a greater sense of how your work fits into the big picture and who is impacted by your work (as well as who impacts your work).

  2. Connect with individuals who are impacted by your work. In 2007 a research team working with cold-callers demonstrated how powerful contact can be. These callers were trying to raise money for university scholarships. One group were given the opportunity to meet a recipient and have a 5-minute chat during which the recipient was able to tell them how the scholarship had impacted him. Following this ‘contact’ that team’s weekly revenue increased by 400%. There are many more examples in studies that show employees working more happily and productively following a connection with those who are impacted by their work – in some cases even seeing a photo helped! Everyone’s work impacts someone – whether that’s inside the organisation or outside – find out who your ‘end user’ is and see if you can establish a connection.

  3. Seek out a mentor who can specifically help you in this arena (or if you already have a mentor, make finding purpose or meaning in your work part of your current mentor conversations). These struggles are a shared experience – chances are your current or future mentor has been there and can help you work out if you can find meaning where you are, or if a change is really right for you – the last thing you want to do is walk away from a good job to find that you have the same experience elsewhere.

At Rapid Context we work with organisations to identify and address the underlying issues that impact employee retention through our Rapid Connect program. If you think you or your organisation would benefit from our program, please get in touch.

Michelle Irving is a Senior Research Consultant at Rapid Context. Her expertise is in qualitative research design, implementation and analysis, mixed method research and social media analysis. Highly skilled in translating research in to practice.

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