If you’ve ever asked yourself ‘what’s the point of doing this job?’ after an encounter with your boss, you’re not alone.
Researchers, Professor Catherine Bailey from the University of Sussex and Dr Adrian Madden from the University of Greenwich, have found bosses play no role in creating a sense of meaningfulness at work. Instead, they have a far greater capacity to destroy it.
Meaningfulness has already been proven to be the most important aspect of work, even trumping pay and opportunities for promotion. Now, based on interviews with 135 people with wide-ranging jobs – from entrepreneurs to lawyers, academics, priests, stonemasons and garbage collectors – researchers have uncovered the factors that drive meaning in the workplace.
Meaning varies from person to person but all employees see their work as meaningful when it is linked to their personal lives and makes a wider contribution to society. Meaningful work is both joyful and uncomfortable, episodic and often experienced in retrospect, when employees are able to see how their efforts contribute to a wider sense of meaning in life, Bailey and Madden found.
Meaningfulness is “almost never related to one’s employer or manager” but poor management is a leading cause of meaninglessness and futility in the workplace.
The researchers also identified the “seven deadly sins” that destroy meaningfulness: disconnecting employees from their values; taking them for granted; doling out pointless work often in the form of paperwork and other bureaucratic tasks; treating people unfairly, overriding their better judgement; disconnecting them from supportive relationships such as those with co-workers and putting them at unnecessary risk of emotional and physical harm.
Avoiding the destruction of meaning while nurturing an environment in which meaningfulness can be generated, emerged as the key leadership challenge, the researchers said. “For organisations seeking to manage meaningfulness, the ethical and moral responsibility is great, since they are bridging the gap between work and personal life,” Bailey said.
To create meaningfulness, employees must understand the purpose of the organisation in which they work and its wider contribution to society. Employers should also acknowledge the negative side of some jobs, provide support for their employees and also show them how these jobs benefit society at large. Organisations should also manage the context in which necessary but tedious tasks are undertaken, such that these tasks aren’t viewed as meaningless.
Interactions with those who benefit from their work as well as supportive interpersonal relationships, creating a sense of belonging and a space where employees are able to give and receive feedback, also enhance meaning in the workplace.
“Organisations that succeed in this are more likely to attract, retain, and motivate the employees they need to build sustainably for the future, and to create the kind of workplaces where human beings can thrive,” said Madden.