Make work mean something more – why you need to embed company values into you culture

Mar 4, 2021

Elizabeth Houghton

Sutton Full Potential Founder

The way work looks to us now only came about in the 20th century. If we were to open a dictionary from the ancient Greek times, work would have looked almost exclusively physical. The industrial revolution brought technology to the way we work and suddenly, people were less necessary for production.

Contemporary ideas of work have resulted from computerization and automation and the new potential for productivity. There have also been changes in the perception of work and the search for meaning in one’s work. Only a few decades ago, a job was just a job. But the rise of technology and the knowledge economy has created a new form of success at work: deriving meaning from one’s job.

Why we work

A conversation with a fair sample of people will reveal numerous reasons for why we work. Some people work for a living and no more. They believe that, as long as they are being paid fairly, they can derive meaning from other areas of their lives. Some people work to build relationships and craft a strong social presence. Some people expect their work to intellectually stimulate them. Other people work for the thrill of being challenged and expect work to be exciting.

How important is meaning at work?

In the landmark 1974 book, Working, by Studs Terkel, the author wrote that work is about a search for daily meaning along with daily bread. It is undertaken for recognition along with money, and for astonishment rather than torpor. Terkel noted that of the people who met who were truly in love with their work, the defining feature was a sense of meaning to their work beyond the paycheck.

A study by Gallup found that four out of five graduates deemed a sense of purpose important in choosing the work that they do. The study found that millennials are comparatively more likely to want to find meaning in their work versus other sources. Many other studies conducted have found that workers today expect something deeper from their work than just a monetary return.

Happiness vs. meaning

Another Gallup survey found that 85% of people do not feel any engagement at their work. Tom Path, who wrote the book Are You Fully Charged, said that the odds of being engaged increase twofold if the person pursues meaningful projects each day.

The defining features of a meaningful life are connecting and contributing to a worthy purpose that is bigger than oneself. Meaning is enduring, happiness is fleeting. Happiness flits and flies. If your goal is a permanent state of happiness at work, that is self-defeating.

Up ahead, we’re looking at some ways we can start to find meaning in our work.

Find the ideals you are working towards

This calls to mind the story of the three bricklayers. When the first was asked what they were doing, they said they were laying bricks. The second answered that they were building a church. The third responded they were building the house of God. The first bricklayer had a job, the second had a career, and the third had their calling.

It’s simplistic, but the message is clear. The next time you gripe about your job, try to find the meaning in it by considering the bricklayer mindset.

Savour meaningful moments

Life is truly made up of little moments. We spend so much time worrying about the future and outcomes that we forget to savor what’s good about our lives at this moment. In a study, researchers found doctors who spent less than 20% of their time on meaningful activities were twice as likely to burn out. Interestingly, doctors who spent more than 20% of time in a week on meaningful activities did not experience less burnout. There seemed to be a “ceiling effect” on the amount of time to be spent.

In other words, we only need the equivalent of one day per week spent on meaningful activities to experience more meaning at work. While we tend to hold a false vision of what meaningful work should look like, you can take your pick. Society’s gold standard for meaning tends to be “helping others” and for about a third of doctors in the study, patient care was the most meaningful. However, to some doctors, research and admin work mattered more to them, and they fared just as well.

Use job crafting

Job crafting is a term crafted by psychologists Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane E. Dutton. Job crafting is a process of tailoring your job description so that you can spend more of your time doing the work you enjoy. Proactive action steps are taken to craft the following three aspects of your job:

  • Task crafting – Task crafting is the exercise of adding or dropping tasks to your job. This could include taking on a task that is not already in your job description to expand your abilities. This could also take the form of increasing or decreasing the time you spend on certain tasks, as per your interests and strengths. For example, a person who enjoys working on online applications may up the amount of time she spends there. Simultaneously, she may not enjoy the responsibility of vendor follow-up, so she may try to minimize her involvement with those tasks.
  • Relational crafting – Relational crafting involves deciding what relationships at work will make you feel most engaged, whether with specific colleagues or with customers. These relationships do not have to be directly correlated to your work. For example, you may form a friendship with the in-house designer and set up regular meetings to give him a set of eyes on his newest work.
  • Cognitive crafting – Actively altering the way you think about your job and how you see your place in the organization can help you find more meaning in your job. For example, a cook may change the way she sees herself from someone who cooks to someone who helps people.

If you don’t know how to go about crafting your role, consider something that is interesting to you: whether fashion, music, or travel. Creatively consider ways you could incorporate it into your day-to-day job. This could be through tasks, relationships, and cognition.

Incorporate more autonomy

People who can decide what they want to work on when they would like to work on it are happier at their jobs. People working from home are experiencing a renewed ability to work at their own schedule. They are able to craft their job experience and accordingly live a lifestyle they find meaningful. Having a manager or superior who supports autonomy is strongly linked to happiness at work, a 2014 study shows. Simply including employees in decisions such as where to place the new printer or how to implement the marketing strategy makes them feel like they are contributors. Micromanagement can be a real killer.

Set goals

It’s easy to get lost in the woods of your work. Set achievable and realistic goals that will stretch your capabilities in the workplace. Instead of feeling like you are just clocking in and out of your desk, setting goals will help you focus on working towards something bigger than yourself. Your goal could be to learn to code, to get that promotion, or to finally finish that piece of work you’ve been putting off for so long. Discussing your goals with your manager and teammates can keep you accountable and is a good practice for keeping them in the loop on what you’re working on.

Develop your talents

Learning constantly will make you feel like you are going beyond your job description. This can have other benefits like recognition, a promotion, and a bonus. Learn a new skill or talk to your team about implementing a strategy you read about to increase sales. Do some research and find out what you can learn to level up in your career. Many companies have budgets for continuing professional education. Outside work, try to find a skill you can learn that will tap into a different part of your brain. Learning a foreign language, taking up art, or learning a musical instrument, all fall into this category. By tapping into a different part of your brain, you’ll see cognitive and emotional benefits at your work over time.

Celebrate small wins

Meaningful work can often be big and unstructured. We know the goal we are pursuing but it can become a source of stress if we let it intimidate us. Of all the things that can induce positive emotions and perceptions in our day, the most important is progress. Every time we acknowledge our achievements related to doing the work that feels meaningful, we are motivated to keep pursuing this work. Racking up wins towards our big meaningful goals brings us closer to our goals. Rather than solely focusing on that enigmatic picture of our goal in the future, try to celebrate the little milestones on the way too. Every small win counts towards making more meaning in your work.

Diversify your life portfolio

The happiest people have spread their sources of happiness over many areas, only one of which is work. They work on their faith, their community, and themselves, in addition to their career. Deriving your complete value from your work is a recipe for disaster.

Having goals in other areas of your life will make your performance and feelings at work better. If you have only one thing that gives you value, your portfolio is out of balance. Don’t take that risk.

Don’t torture yourself

Meaning is a subjective concept at the end of the day. Today, your career may be the most meaningful thing to you whereas tomorrow it may be taking care of your aged parents. And you cannot force yourself to find the meaning in jobs where you truly don’t see any. If meaning at work is important to you, and you find that you cannot derive it currently, it’s not your fault.

Start cultivating meaningful relationships and activities outside work. Also, start to pursue conversations that may direct you in your search for meaningful work so you can find something that gives you satisfaction.

If all else fails, you can also take some time off to clear your head before making any big decisions. Take a step back so you can see the larger picture. This can lead to powerful insights about ourselves which lend themselves to our strategy to find and create better work and lives. In this way, we can hone in on the meaningful work we’re meant to do.

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