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According to a Pew Research Center study that surveyed nearly 19,000 adults across 17 advanced economies, work is the second most common source of meaning, falling just behind family and children.

This finding adds to the growing body of research that underscores the importance of meaningful work. Previous studies revealed that when employees find their work meaningful, they experience greater job satisfaction, better engagement, and a stronger sense of organizational loyalty. The Pew Research Center’s findings explain these outcomes and further highlight the value of cultivating a meaning-conducive workplace.

 

What Makes Work Meaningful

Before acting on these results, employers must first determine what will make work meaningful for their employees.

A recent experiment from Aalto University may help them make that determination. Drawing from the self-determination theory, which identifies universal human motivations and basic psychological needs, the researchers hypothesized meaningful work is positively associated with:

  1. Autonomy: The sense that one has control over their actions
  2. Beneficence: The sense that one’s work is having a prosocial effect and contributing positively to the lives of other people
  3. Competence: The sense of mastery and efficacy in one’s activities
  4. Relatedness: The sense that one is connected to others, has caring relationships, and belongs to a community

To test their hypothesis, the team of researchers sent out a survey to 240 workers that contained questions designed to measure the degree to which participants felt their work was meaningful and satisfied their need for autonomy, beneficence, competence, and relatedness.

They found that autonomy and beneficence were the strongest predictors of meaningful work. Surprisingly, competence and relatedness did not have any effects on their own. However, competence did predict feelings of autonomy, and relatedness predicted beneficence. This suggests that both factors may indirectly influence a worker’s sense of meaning. When accounting for these results, the researchers noted that:

When one feels one is competent in certain tasks, this might make work feel more self-endorsed and thus increase a sense of autonomy over time. Similarly, relatedness could lead one to want to contribute towards those one feels a sense of relatedness with, thus increasing the sense of contribution over time.

 

Takeaway

While many individuals derive meaning from their work, they do so most frequently when they feel autonomous, competent, connected to their colleagues, and positively about their work’s impact on the world. To foster meaningfulness, employers must cultivate these traits. 

Companies should work on clarifying and articulating their organizational purpose. Without a clear understanding of a business’s primary non-profit-related goal, employees may have difficulty understanding how their work is making the world a better place. Employers should also focus on the value created by each role in the company. This will enable them to clearly explain to every employee why and how their work contributes to the common good.  

Leaders should create systematic processes that allow managers and peers to express gratitude and recognize employees’ hard work. This will help with competency, which may improve autonomy. 

Lastly, organizations must create a supportive culture that enables employees to form strong bonds. When doing so, they should consider the impact of remote or hybrid work on an employee’s professional relationships, as studies have found that telecommuting workers are more likely to feel isolated and disconnected from their colleagues. 

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