The coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally changed the way we live in the last few months. For some, spending more time with family under lockdown has emphasised the importance of a good work-life balance. Others have begun to rethink their career choices and what it is that work means to them.
The crisis has made many people think more about the role work plays in their lives, including its usefulness to society and its importance to the economy. And although such thought may seem secondary in times of a pandemic, the perceptions we have about meaningful work can actually have a significant impact on our productivity, wellbeing and businesses.
Recent research shows a large proportion of UK workers are considering a rethink of what they do for work. In fact, nearly half – 41% – are considering quitting their jobs for more fulfilling work when the worst of COVID-19 is over.
The research by Slater and Gordon, which surveyed 2,000 working Brits, revealed a newfound desire to retrain or find a job role within the NHS is being spurred by a need to combat a feeling of ‘helplessness’ during the crisis or a desire to be a more valuable member of the community. A further 22% went as far as to label their current role as ‘pointless.’
So what exactly is meaningful work – and why is it becoming more important to us?
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to meaningful work, as finding meaning in your work is a personal experience. In 2016, Professor Catherine Bailey, of the department of business and management at the University of Sussex and Adrian Madden, a senior lecturer in the department of HR and organisational behaviour at the University of Greenwich set out to find out more about what makes work meaningful.
They interviewed 135 people working in ten different occupations and asked them about incidents or times when they found their work to be meaningful. “We expected to find that meaningfulness would be similar to other work-related attitudes, such as engagement or commitment, in that it would arise purely in response to situations within the work environment,” they reported.
“However, we found that, unlike these other attitudes, meaningfulness tended to be intensely personal and individual; it was often revealed to employees as they reflected on their work and its wider contribution to society in ways that mattered to them as individuals,” the researchers added. “People tended to speak of their work as meaningful in relation to thoughts or memories of significant family members such as parents or children, bridging the gap between work and the personal realm.”
The researchers also discovered that meaningfulness is more about specific moments in time. Instead of being a continuous state, the interviewees reported feeling aware that their work had meaning at certain times – and often at unexpected moments.
Meaningfulness was also often associated with a feeling of fulfilling one’s potential and finding the work creative and absorbing. Perhaps most interestingly, the research also showed that meaningful work is not always a positive or happy experience. In fact, people found meaning in their work during times of sadness, such as when helping someone through a bereavement.
More than nine out of 10 employees are willing to sacrifice a percentage of their lifetime earnings for greater meaning at work, according to 2017 research by the professional training and coaching firm BetterUp. But the study also shows how meaning can benefit businesses, too. Employees with very meaningful work, the researchers found, spend one additional hour per week working, and take two fewer days of paid leave per year.
People who found work meaningful experienced significantly greater job satisfaction and subsequently productivity, which the researchers estimated could generate an additional $9,078 (£7,287) per worker each year.
With millions of people around the world facing redundancy and income loss, many are focusing on trying to maintain a steady wage to pay the rent and bills. But there are also many reasons why we might be thinking more deeply about meaningfulness in our work at this time. Key workers such as medical staff, supermarket employees and delivery drivers might be busier than ever, but many of us have been forced to slow down under quarantine, giving us more time to consider what we value.
Witnessing a global crisis unfold also tends to put things into perspective, too. For example, the promotion you were stressing about before Christmas may be the last thing on your mind – particularly if you are concerned about your health or the wellbeing of friends and family.
It’s also natural to want to do work that helps and supports people, particularly when you hear inspiring stories of NHS workers during the pandemic. Wanting to do something you find meaningful can also stem from a personal experience too, such as seeing a loved one struggling with their physical or mental health. As we struggle to go back to normality over the next few months, it’s likely more of us will consider what work means to us.