Why Meaningful Work is Important for Wellbeing 

Tuesday, 8 October 2019 

Article by Dr. Edwin Trevor-Roberts


Do you remember that time when your career was going really well? Most likely you were doing work that you enjoyed and that stimulated you;  you had the autonomy to determine how you went about doing your work; and you felt a strong connection to others through the positive relationships you had with them.
Reflecting on times like these shows the important contribution work makes to our mental health and overall wellbeing. The considerable amount of time we spend during our life at work means that it is more than just a place to make money, it is a place where we have the unique opportunity to grow and develop as a person.  Just like in life, it is through the highs and lows, the successes and challenges we experience during our career that helps to shape who we are as a human. It’s not just what we do that matters, it's who we are when we do what we do that does.
However, our career isn't always rosy. There are times that we feel stuck, a flat period when it seems like nothing is happening, or alternatively, when everything around is changing and we can't seem to positively change at the same time.  The original term for this is a 'career plateau' and it’s an apt metaphor for how people can feel at times. There are six common reasons1 that may cause someone to feel plateaued:
1. Individual skills and abilities: I don’t feel like I’m learning anything new. 
2. Individual needs and values: My values are not being met. 
3. Lack of intrinsic motivation: I’m just not excited about work. 
4. Lack of extrinsic rewards: I just don’t feel valued here anymore. 
5. Stress and burnout: I just can’t keep going like this. 
6. Slow organisational growth: I want to move faster but we are so slow here. 
It is when we stand on a plateau that we are most acutely aware of a lack of meaning in our work. It is then that the search for meaning in our career becomes paramount. Yet meaning is elusive, it is a complex concept that we have to define for ourselves. To aid us in this process it is worth exploring the four main sources2 from which we derive meaning in our career: the self, other people, the work context and spiritual life.
The self or, more accurately, our self-concept is the thoughts and feelings that we hold about ourselves and continuously changes in response to experiences. Our self-concept contributes to meaningfulness at work through values, motivation and orientation to work. Inherent in our self-concept are the values that we hold, and they play a pivotal role in shaping the meanings that we make of our work. For example, if we feel our values are being compromised at our workplace then the sense of meaningfulness we derive from work decreases and we are very likely to consider changing employers.
The second source through which we experience meaning at work is through our relationships and interactions with others.  There is an old cliché that people join companies and leave managers, however, this can be extended to leaving co-workers, clients, suppliers or any people we interact with on a regular basis. Humans have an inherent need to belong and people identify with, and feel part of, the organisations they work for. Have you noticed how often, when asked for a highlight of our day, we share a story of a great interaction with someone?
The work context itself is the third source from which people derive meaning from their work. Research conducted by Amy Wrzesniewski and her colleagues3 found that people constantly re-design the relational and task boundaries of their job in order to shape the meaning of their work. In other words, we subtly alter the tasks and activities we have to do in our job to give us more enjoyment. For example, we may delegate the tasks we don't want to do, spend more time on the things that we do enjoy or get involved in a project or taskforce in an area that interests us. 
The final source of meaning at work is from spirituality. The past few decades have seen an increasing interest in secular practices in the workplace taking the form of mindfulness training, reflective leadership and wellbeing.  The trend toward organisations as catalysts for social good and contribution back to society is part of this movement. For us as individuals, we derive a sense of meaning when we see how our work contributes to this greater good, to making the world a better place. For most it’s not a religious overtone but rather a sense that through our work we are making this world a better place in some small way. 
Amidst all the uncertainty about the constantly changing working environment of the future, work remains an important part of our life. Feeling that our work matters and that we are making a contribution is vital to our mental health. The work we do provides a unique opportunity to explore our potential, to learn and grow, and to make a contribution to others. It won't always be pleasant, but I hope for you it’s meaningful. 
Further Reading:
TEDx Talk: Reframing ‘work’: the other four letter word by Dr Edwin Trevor-Roberts
Trevor-Roberts Blog: Who are you at work? Some musings on identity

(1) Feldman, D. C., & Weitz, B. A. (1988). Career Plateaus Reconsidered. Journal of Management, 14(1), 69–80. https://doi.org/10.1177/014920638801400107
(2) Rosso, B. D., Rosso, B. D., Dekas, K. H. and Wrzesniewski, A. 2010. On the meaning of work: A theoretical integration and review, Research in organizational behaviour, pp91
(3) Wrzesniewski, A. and Dutton, J. E. (2001) 'Crafting a Job: Revisioning employees as active crafters of their work', Academy of Management Review, 26(2), pp. 179.


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