Thought Leadership

The Science Behind Making Work Meaningful

Did you know that the average human spends 90,000 hours at work? That is approximately one-third of your life! So, it’s safe to say that the work you do each day has a significant impact on your state of mind, well-being, and quality of life. That’s exactly why it is commonly said that if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. While this may be true, research has shown that only 49% of employees are actually satisfied with their jobs. Which brings up the question, what about the remaining 51%?

Steve Jobs, one of the most revolutionary CEOs who left an undeniable impact on our world today, once said, “We’re here to put a dent in the universe. Otherwise, why else even be here?” And numerous research papers agree. Studies have shown that meaningful work is highly motivational and provides employees with satisfaction, which thereby leads to improved performance and commitment. In fact, the search for meaningful work is so popular that there is even a website that lists the most and least meaningful roles, as voted by employees. That being said, if certain roles are meaningless should they cease to exist, or are they just being filled by the wrong people?

When people are unsatisfied with their jobs, it’s not because it is meaningless but rather because it is not suited for them. Lack of interest is a big reason why employees are unhappy. Research shows that while employees want engaging and challenging jobs, only 30% of them are engaged and motivated, while 18% are physically present but mentally disengaged. 

So, how can one find a meaningful job or discover meaning in their current profession? 

According to the Self-Determination Theory by Deci and Ryan, there are three innate psychological needs namely competence, autonomy, and relatedness, that are motivational drivers that enable people to experience purpose through their work. Let’s break down how each of these three can help you make work meaningful.

  • Competence Leads to Satisfaction

To secure any job, one must possess the required skill set, but in today’s highly competitive world that’s often not all that’s needed. According to the theory, a competent person with the right sense of judgment skills along with the ability to manoeuvre and interact effectively within their work environment can both achieve their goals and gain a sense of mastery over their work. This is why companies with highly satisfied employees yield more productivity and profit. Since numerous organisations have seen the benefits of employees improving their all-round skills, companies like IBM, Disney and UPS to name a few, sponsor the entire tuition fee for their employees’ MBA degrees. Other companies such as Ford, Boeing, Intel and Target offer partial assistance to cover costs of books, tuition and other fees.

  • Ownership

Taking ownership of the work that you do and being recognised for it is essential to meaningful work. Research shows that workplace autonomy improves motivation, and creativity, and helps one find the true meaning of their work-related contributions. This is because employees essentially feel as if they are working for themselves as there is higher decision-making and rewards. A flat organizational structure with fewer levels of management allows for greater autonomy and authority for employees. That’s why companies such as Amazon follow a relatively flat organisational structure even though they are such a large corporate. This allows them to have a speedy turnaround time and improve employee and customer satisfaction. Google is another organisation that follows a flat structure, allowing each employee the opportunity to lead and make an impact.

  • Social Impact

Employees are not just looking for a cushy salary anymore, they also want to have pride in the organisation that they work at. And to them, that pride no longer comes from selling superior products but from creating an environment that fosters change. Research has shown that 59% of people believe that it is no longer acceptable for companies to be silent on social justice issues and ​​58% of employees today say they hold their employer to a higher standard than other companies when it comes to addressing these issues. That’s why Starbucks has launched a mentorship program connecting BIPOC partners to senior leaders and is investing in strategic partnerships with professional organizations that focus on the development of BIPOC talent. Airbnb also pledged to provide short-term housing for 100,000 displaced people and donate $4 million to the International Rescue Committee after President Trump temporarily closed America’s borders to refugees. And now after Roe v. Wade was overturned, numerous companies such as Amazon, Bank of America, Bumble, Tesla, and Goldman Sachs Group to name a few are standing in solidarity with their women employees to provide free travel and lodging to cover costs of out of state abortions.

Work is such an important part of life. Day in and day out, people dedicate so much time, energy and creativity to their work because as Jim Collins once said, “It is impossible to have a great life unless it is a meaningful life. And it is very difficult to have a meaningful life without meaningful work.”