When someone my age starts their career, they expect to find a sense of meaning in their work. Sadly, a sense of meaning is something employers too often fail to provide. When young people leave higher education and start their first job, they often find themselves doing a job they do not enjoy, in a workplace in which they do not feel welcome, but they tolerate these conditions because they are expected to.
Given that more motivated employees will work harder and be of greater benefit to their employers, why do so many employers struggle to create a sense of meaning for their employees? One possible reason for this might be that employers focus more on basic needs like salary and safety, rather than higher needs like fulfillment and meaning.
In 1943, Abraham Maslow proposed a model of human needs which today is known as ‘Maslow’s hierarchy of needs’. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a pictographic representation of the needs of people in their working lives. As you would expect, at the bottom of the pyramid are the most basic, foundational needs of all people’s needs: sustenance, shelter, rest, safety and security. Above this are the psychological, personal needs of people: having friends, being appreciated, and a sense of prestige and self-worth. At the very top of the hierarchy are the needs of self-fulfilment, by which we mean the achievement of one’s potential, and above all, a sense of meaning and belonging. What Maslow’s hierarchy of needs suggests is that not all needs are equal, and that the most basic needs must be satisfied first, before the higher needs of employees can be satisfied. What it also tells us is that needs are relative to each individual and their circumstances. And broadly speaking, this makes perfect sense. The needs of someone less advantaged in society will be different to someone who is more advantaged, and someone whose basic needs are fulfilled will be more inclined to seek a higher sense of fulfillment in the form of meaningfulness.
What individuals perceive matters
If people are to derive a sense of achievement and personal advancement from their work, then it is essential that they be motivated by a sense of meaning. Often, meaningfulness is linked to the external purpose one’s job serves in the world: that is, whether or not it helps people or benefits society as a whole. But broadly speaking, meaningfulness in work can be defined as: ‘when an individual perceives an authentic connection between work and a broader transcendent life purpose beyond the self.’ This definition implies that there are innumerable ways in which someone might find meaning in their work, and that much like anything else, meaningfulness depends on the individual’s values.
Why does this matter to companies? It matters because at work, meaning can be linked not only to job satisfaction, but to performance. Increasingly, people my age seek a sense of meaning in their work. In fact, research shows that regardless of age, nine out of ten people would opt for a more meaningful, but lower paid career.
Those asked said (on average) that they would exchange 23% of their lifetime salary for a permanently meaningful job.
What this shows is that there is now a monetary value that can be attributed to employees’ sense of meaningfulness. And indeed, there are consequences for employers who fail to cultivate a sense of meaning for their employees: firstly, employees are more likely to quit if they feel that their work is meaningless to them, and moreover, employees will likely put less effort into their work if they lack a sense of meaning. So
How can an employer cultivate their employees’ sense of meaning?
Luckily, there are many steps employers can take to increase their workforce’s sense of meaning, according to the authors of Harvard Business Review.
The first thing an employer might do is to try and make their employees feel as if they belong in their workplace. Imagine, for instance, that you have recently started a new job and are not enjoying your work because you feel as if you aren’t welcome in the workplace. In this instance your employer could help you by providing social support at work when employees require it, by organizing events to increase workforce synergy, with the intention of making it clear to workers that their employer cares about their wellbeing and their professional growth. According to Josh Bersin, this kind of managerial approach that takes care of employees’ emotional wellbeing helps to create trust between employer and employee, resulting in a net benefit for the organization as a whole.
Secondly, - as Bailey and Madden of The Sloan Review agree - employers could make it easier for employees to see how their work fits into the collective purpose of their organization. If employees feel that their work correlates to a real-world impact on a macro-level, then they will be more likely to derive meaning from their work. This is particularly important to emphasize when an employee is tasked with performing repetitive, bureaucratic work, because this is the kind of work with which it is easiest to lose one’s sense of meaning and larger perspective. Finally - and this may seem like an obvious point - but it is very important that employers give their employees praise when they put in effort at work. An unrewarded worker is, generally speaking, an unhappy worker, and workers who receive praise for delivering good results are more likely to continue to deliver good results in the future.
It seems, therefore, that the key to establishing meaning for employees lies in cultivating trust and belonging. Workers who feel as if all their needs are being met and have a personal connection to their job are more likely to do well at their job, and to remain in their position, rather than jumping ship. In the future, it would be logical to assume that the notion of meaning will play an increasingly important role in the world of work, given the power it has to motivate the workforce.