Meaningful work: what is it and what are the benefits?

Even in dire circumstances, people seek meaning in their work and lives. Here, we’re taking a deep dive into what ‘meaningful work’ truly means.

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With COVID-19 and the turbulent global effects that followed in our lives, we all got the universal memo and crucial reminder that life is short

It was a stark reminder that we only have a limited amount of time on this earth to be able to do what we truly want to do. And this sparked a movement for the majority of us to start seeking out more meaningful work, and to make the most of the rest of our lives in the workplace.

So what is meaningful work, exactly? And what more should we do to keep the momentum going along the journey to ultimate career fulfilment?

In this article, we will explore these definitions, and the deeper meaning work can have in our lives. 

What is meaningful work?

Meaningful work is work that connects to your own personal sense of values, ethics and what you consider to truly matter in life – be that for yourself or others.

Money is rarely the driving factor. Rather, it is more of a spiritual yearning to put one's skills, talents and vision to their greatest potential in a way that truly impacts the world, while also optimising your own personal happiness and fulfilment.

Victoria Yu, CEO of Making That Sale

“Following my parents wishes, I majored in business administration, and I did amazing academically! But I never wanted to make it big in the business world or make big waves.

After graduating, I was incredibly blessed to stumble across a happy medium between my studies and my passions: a remote job as a business writer.

Of course, the pay isn’t anywhere close to the six-figure positions others in my graduating class are making, but it allows me to stay at home with my aging grandmother, exercise my writing skills, make full use of my education, and earn enough money to support my hobbies.”

(Making That Sale)

While there are often trade-offs when it comes to money and meaningful work, some people such as C.T. Price here explains that he would not compromise on his for anything:

C.T. Price, CEO of Life Grows Green

“We live in a world where success is determined by materialistic abundance and financial prosperity. Just like everyone else in my generation, I fell into the trap of the desire to attain the greatest wealth for the greatest joy. It didn’t work. It will never work. 

My new job would see me spending less time in an office and more time out with Mother Nature. Money was no longer everything, it became a byproduct of success as opposed to an underlying goal. I was rich in life, the bank did not matter.

(Life Grows Green)

Meaningful work can be whatever you make of it, you get to define your own rules and create your own philosophies, which is the fun part. 

This is particularly prevalent if you work for yourself or are the owner of a company. 

Matt Bowman, for instance, started as a single consultant in 2005 and has since become CEO of Thrive, a digital marketing agency. Here he acknowledges the impact of Thrive’s meaningful work on himself and his clients.  

  • Give back to the community that your business serves. Part of the company’s DNA is to provide opportunities for the team to volunteer as a group and individually.
  • Genuinely care for your employees. Matt’s leadership style embraces taking good care of employees so they take good care of clients.
  • Innovate from your customer’s point of view. For maximum impact, Matt believes customer experience should be the top consideration. 

What makes work meaningful?

Here are just a few examples of what might make work meaningful for a person, based on world-class business strategist Tony Robbins' list of 6 human needs:

1. Certainty: assurance you can avoid pain and gain pleasure

When it comes to thinking about meaningful work, money can be a contentious yet important factor.

As Kanye West once said: “Having money isn't everything, not having it is.”

There must always be some form of a stable, anxiety-reducing form of income that allows you to continue on another day, but how much you allow that fact to influence your journey to the work you love is up to you.

Jessica Higham, Marketing Manager at Onoco

There's a misconception that meaningful work is lesser paid; ultimately it's about what you consider to be meaningful, and where you can find that meaning within your role. 

There are a number of job boards popping up that focus on sourcing this type of position, especially across the start-up world, such as Flexa, Escape the City and Otta. By celebrating and highlighting these roles, it's clear to see that we are able to make a change in the world, no matter what position we hold.”

(Onoco)

Financial security is important, and it is disingenuous to say otherwise. We live in a capitalist and consumerist society where bills are ever-recurring and demand to be paid.

The key is to balance financial stability with job satisfaction.

2. Uncertainty/Variety: the need for the unknown, change, and new stimuli

Human beings need a certain amount of security and stability. But we also need a certain amount of uncertainty and variety in order to stave away boredom and avoid getting stuck in the rut of our all-too-ordinary, boring daily routines. But both are absolutely necessary to keep us growing and evolving. 

It’s very important to know that even people with their dream jobs get bored of them from time to time – even extremely successful people aren’t always 100% happy and wish for something else. This couldn’t be further from the truth because it is just contrary to human nature overall.

While it would be extremely difficult to obtain permanent happiness every day for the rest of your life, with a good mixture of certainty and uncertainty in the right areas, you could end up with both contentment and challenge within your work-life.

3. Significance: feeling unique, important, special or needed

People have an innate desire to feel special or important in some way so that they feel more than simply cogs in a machine. We all like to think that we have something special to offer the world and the workplace that no one else can, that is as unique and irreplaceable as our DNA.

A recent study by IBM reported that 70% of employees found a holistic approach to their performance assessment better than a simple salary hike. 

When you’re not particularly a fan of your job and simply clock in and out, it’s easy to not care and simply take the money. But this can also lead to discontent and a decline in mental and emotional health over the long term. In a meaningful job role, your quality of work and genuine feedback that will help you to grow as an expert in your chosen field will be important to you.

“Something we have done is to closely tie every role with something that the employee is passionate about. For example, if someone cares about helping people, we focus them on customer service. It’s all about the approach to the role and matching that to the person and what makes the work meaningful to them.”

Dan Gallagher, VP of Operations, Aegle Nutrition  

4. Connection/Love: a strong feeling of closeness or union with someone or something

This may seem unnecessary in a work context but it has been proven time and time again in studies that humans were not created to live and work in a vacuum, isolated from other people. So the closer you can feel to others in your place or work, or the closer you can feel to the overall mission and your part to play in it, the happier you’ll be.

5. Growth: an expansion of capacity, capability or understanding

If you’re not growing, you’re stalling. In this exciting world filled with new opportunities and avenues every day, most people want to capitalise on that either for professional advancement or for their own sense of self-improvement. The more a vocation can tap into this, the better.

“One of the major benefits of creating a meaningful work environment was that employees became more motivated than ever. They were able to explore their hidden talents and got a chance to upskill themselves, which made a huge difference. A win-win situation for both the company and our employees.”

– Casey Jones, Founder and Head of Marketing and Finance at CJ & CO

6. Contribution: a sense of service and focus on helping, giving to and supporting others

This is an excellent example of the value of contribution, helping and supporting others from Susan Whited:

“In my mid-thirties, mom had had a lengthy illness and was in the hospital for most of the last five months of her life. 

I was a stay-at-home mom with two kids and had always been happy in my role. But the influence of mom's exceptional nurses couldn't be denied. As a result, I yearned to do for others; what they did for me. 

In the years since, I've helped people become healthy, held others' hands when they died, and comforted family members when loved ones passed away. 

To say becoming a nurse was the best decision of my life is an understatement.

I'll recommend anyone thinking about a life spent in service to others to do the same. Knowing what you do matters, and it adds value and meaning to life.”

– Susan Whited, Joy Among Chaos

There are a couple of theories out there that you can combine to come up with your own list of what makes work meaningful for you (Self-determination theory developed in the 1970s for instance, or Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to name but a few). 

What is most interesting about these general principles, however, is that they are not simply what make work meaningful – but also life itself.

Life and work are inherently connected as most human beings feel happier when their personal and professional lives intertwine, allowing them to experience a combination of these factors concurrently.

Key meaningful work statistics

  • 70% of Gen Z workers ranked purpose as more important than pay (Monster.com
  •  9 out of 10 people are willing to earn less money to carry out more meaningful work (Harvard Business Review)
  • 47% of people say mundane work makes them feel like they're wasting their time (Servicenow)

Key benefits of meaningful work (for companies)

There are a multitude of benefits to finding meaningful work for you as an individual – many of which we covered above. But making an effort to cultivate this style of working also massively benefits companies, company owners and employers.

“Research has found that when employees find their work to be meaningful, their performance improves by 33 per cent, they are 75 per cent more committed to their organisation, and are 49 per cent less likely to leave.” (Source: McKinsey)

Employee satisfaction

Our business approached creating meaningful roles in the workplace by ensuring that each role had a clear purpose and was aligned with our company values. We also communicated openly with our team members about why we were creating these roles and how they could contribute to our business. 

This approach worked well for us, as it resulted in greater employee engagement and a more positive work environment, increased productivity and creativity.

– Austin Fain, CEO of Perfect Steel Solutions

Shared purpose and vision with others

There is a well-known story about a cleaner at NASA who, when asked what he did at the company replied: “I help mankind reach the moon.

The story showcases the idea that at a company, “meaningful roles” should translate to “we all work as a single unit to accomplish a singular task”. It also highlights the power of a strong vision statement that connects with mankind's innate desire for purpose. A company should aim to make all the employees feel a core part of this unit and should always highlight the importance of what they bring to the table.

Not classifying any role, be it big or small, as less important will be a good start, as every operation of an organisation is crucial, and so are the people working on it. Making them feel heard and seen is an excellent start.

Employee engagement

Employee engagement increases productivity and vastly increases profitability. Companies with engaged employees typically enjoy revenue growth that is 2.5 times higher than companies with unengaged ones (Source: Hay Group).

“As the founder and CEO of my business, I'm proud to say that creating meaningful roles in the workplace has been one of our greatest successes

All job descriptions were tailored to the individual's unique skill set, strengths, and interests. Plus, each position was made as specific as possible so employees would have clear goals they could focus on achieving.

The results were amazing! Not only did employee engagement increase significantly, but morale also experienced a big boost as well.

Additionally, staff retention rates increased dramatically–a crucial metric for any rapidly-growing business like ours! Everyone felt valued and respected regardless of seniority or years served with the company.” 

George Harrison, CEO of PKG Maker

Richard Nolan, Chief People Officer at Epos now also noted the significant transformations at his company:

By implementing clear career progression paths with performance reviews on a regular basis, our teams can monitor progress when considering personal development opportunities – which results in more resilient staff members who feel valued within their positions long term.” 

– Richard Nolan, Chief People Officer at Epos now

The future of meaningful work

As resident Startups writer, a bestselling author and business strategist who has helped people all over the world achieve their own version of meaningful work, I anticipate significant changes driven by societal, technological, and cultural shifts.

Meaningful work is likely to be associated with jobs that have a clear positive impact on society and the environment. With growing concerns about climate change, social inequality, and sustainability, there will likely be an increased demand for roles focused on addressing these issues.

In terms of popularity, meaningful work is likely to become more sought after. As people seek fulfilment and a sense of purpose in their careers, jobs that offer a sense of contribution to the greater good are likely to be highly valued.

The younger generations, such as millennials and Gen Z, have shown a strong preference for meaningful work and are actively seeking out organizations and roles that align with their values.

Overall, the future of meaningful work is expected to prioritise tasks that are intellectually stimulating, socially and environmentally responsible, and personally fulfilling. The human desire to find purpose in one's career is expected to remain a central driver in the job market.

Conclusion: Is meaningful work worth it?

Ultimately, seeking or creating meaningful work is a transformational experience that can radically enhance employers’ and employees’ professional lives. 

For those seeking a better quality of life, obtaining meaningful work is the perfect solution.

Your dream role does not mean your life will be perfect every single day, your profits will always be high or there will not be parts of the grind that you find tiring or unsatisfactory. For the most part, however, you’ll know that everything you do is helping you move towards something bigger, greater, and more valuable in a way that improves your life, business and overall growth.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • What is meaningful work?
    Meaningful work is work that connects to your own personal sense of values, ethics and what you consider to truly matter in life – be that for yourself or others.
  • Can meaningful work also be profitable?
    Yes, higher-paying jobs can also have that sense of meaning if you look for them and ensure they are closely tied to your values. “There's a misconception, I think, that meaningful work is lesser paid.” - Jessica Higham
  • What makes work meaningful?
    Following Tony Robbin’s list of the 6 basic human needs, you could argue that meaningful work should involve: certainty, uncertainty, significance, connection, growth and contribution.
Written by:
Stephanie Lennox is the resident funding & finance expert at Startups: A successful startup founder in her own right, 2x bestselling author and business strategist, she covers everything from business grants and loans to venture capital and angel investing. With over 14 years of hands-on experience in the startup industry, Stephanie is passionate about how business owners can not only survive but thrive in the face of turbulent financial times and economic crises. With a background in media, publishing, finance and sales psychology, and an education at Oxford University, Stephanie has been featured on all things 'entrepreneur' in such prominent media outlets as The Bookseller, The Guardian, TimeOut, The Southbank Centre and ITV News, as well as several other national publications.

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