“How do I engage my people?” Leaders have been asking this question ever since engagement became ‘the’ HR buzz word. But it’s the wrong question, or at least too narrow a question.
Engagement is one of many employee outcomes, all with their own drivers, costs and benefits. However, “Meaningful Work” is emerging as one of the strongest drivers of all of these outcomes. In this article, I’ll tell you what that is, why it’s important, and how something so seemingly elusive can be provided to employees in tangible ways.
What is “Meaningful Work”?
“Meaningful work” is work that:
- Helps you to fulfill purpose, life goals, and values;
- Helps you to realize your full potential as a person;
- Has a positive impact on people, things, and the world in general;
- Makes you feel like you’re accomplishing something worthwhile;
- Is a major source of overall life happiness.
Meaningful work is not new. It’s echoed in Maslow’s self-actualization, McGregor’s Theory Y Management, and Herzberg’s Motivator-Hygiene Theory. Malcolm Gladwell talked about it in Outliers, and Eckhart Tolle has extolled the virtues of meaning, in general, in A New Earth.
I surveyed 1,000 people in 50 states on nearly 40 work dimensions as part of an academic study. Out of 80 questions, the meaningful work questions were among the strongest correlates of satisfaction, commitment, stay intentions, discretionary effort, engagement, and low burnout, as well as low depression, low anxiety, physical health, and mental health as indexed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
For example, employees with jobs that helped them to:
- Fulfill a life purpose were 41% more likely to get absorbed in their work;
- Achieve life goals were 34% more likely to work beyond what was expected of them;
- Realize their personal values were 52% more likely to feel committed to their employers;
- Become who they were ‘meant to be’ in life were 41% more likely to dislike stopping work;
- Do what they do best had 33% weaker intentions to quit;
- See their connection to a vision and mission were 58% more likely to feel committed to their employers.
In three national samples, meaningful work characteristics had the highest average correlation with engagement, satisfaction, commitment, effort, stay intentions, healthy days, as well as low stress, burnout, and depression.
A ‘How-To’ Guide for Meaningful Work
There are multiple routes to meaningful work, and one or more of these may be possible for your organization.
First, find out 1) who your employees are, and 2) how they perceive their work. The first involves personality, values and interests inventories. The second involves employee surveys. With both, you’ll learn what motivates employees, and how much or how little of what motivates them is present in their jobs.
A good employee survey will tap themes such as growth and development, realizing strengths and potential, realizing values, life goals, social impact and intrinsically-rewarding work factors like employee involvement, recognition, freedom to be creative, project ownership, clear processes and communication.
Communicate Meaningful Work
Meaningful work is often already present, but unnoticed. For example, employees may disagree on a survey that they have job autonomy, even though it exists ‘unused’ in their job descriptions. Meaningful work is partly a mind-set. Some employees are naturally better at finding meaning than others. You may need to help your staff identify the existing meaningful work opportunities.
Re-Tool Jobs to Be More Meaningful
If possible, modify jobs to shore up the kinds of meaningful work that are found lacking on surveys. Don’t assume that meaningfulness is inherent only in certain jobs. Most jobs can be changed in small ways to address what matters most to people.
Make the Work Environment More ‘Un-Work’ Like
Sometimes you can’t increase the meaningfulness of your organization’s products and services, or the nature of people’s jobs. But perhaps the work environment can be transformed to be more like the places where people would rather be. You’ll find basketball courts and games rooms in some larger companies, but you could score more points with smaller scale environment changes that link more deeply to what most matters to employees.
Make Non-Work Lives Meaningful
If you can’t provide meaningful work or meaningful work environments, help employees to create more meaning in their non-work lives. This isn’t your responsibility, but it helps. Research shows that contributing directly to employees’ non-work lives can lead to higher commitment.
Studies show that less than 8% of people’s life longings are work-related. Finding out what the other 92% are for your employees could provide a palette of easy wins. Perhaps it’s paid time off for volunteer work. Also, not all employee development is career-related. Consider what they’re trying to accomplish in their nonwork lives and who they’re trying to become, and find easy ways to support those efforts.