Meaningful work is something to which we all aspire, but about which surprisingly little is known. The authors undertook an interview-based study involving 135 individuals in 10 very different occupations to find out which factors foster meaningfulness in work and which destroy it. They found that meaningfulness is different from other work-related attitudes such as engagement, in that meaningfulness tends to be intensely personal and individual. The authors discovered five unexpected features of meaningfulness at work: (1) it is often self-transcendent, in the sense that individuals tend to experience their work as meaningful when it has an impact on others, (2) it can be associated with poignant or difficult experiences, not just happy ones, (3) the experience of meaningfulness at work tends to be episodic rather than sustained, (4) it is often only appreciated upon reflection rather than in the moment, and (5) it is personal, and managers and organizations matter relatively little in individuals’ experience of meaningfulness.
The authors also found that meaningfulness appears to be driven up and decreased by different factors. Whereas meaningfulness was something individuals tended to discover for themselves, meaninglessness at work was generally a function of how people were treated by managers. Seven factors within the control of managers emerged as destroyers of meaningfulness: disconnecting people from their values; taking employees for granted; giving people pointless work to do; treating people unfairly; overriding individuals’ better judgment; disconnecting people from supportive relationships; and putting people at risk of physical or emotional harm.
The authors note that, given meaningfulness’s personal and intangible nature, organizations cannot effectively control or mandate meaningfulness, but rather should focus on creating an ecosystem that is conducive to meaningfulness at work. They argue that there are four elements to a holistic meaningfulness ecosystem: organizational, job, task, and interactional meaningfulness. Experiencing work as meaningful can be a moving and even uncomfortable experience, but organizations that are successful in fostering holistic meaningfulness are more likely to create the kind of workplaces where human beings can thrive.