Find Meaning & Purpose at Work

Most of us have a deep desire for work that provides a sense of purpose. According to a study by Bates College and Gallup, over 80% of college-educated Americans aspire to have meaningful work, yet less than 50% attain it. That is disappointing because “The need for meaning and purpose is the number 1 basic psychological need we have; according to Alan Rozanski, Professor of Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, meaning or purpose is the greatest source of our well-being.” At work, it directly impacts our delivery quality, overall performance, and commitment.

Building and maintaining strong work relationships is a universal contributor to having a meaningful job. But the other factors are in the eyes of the beholder, as discovered by professors Jing Hu and Jacob Hirsch at Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto. They found “55% of the jobs listed as meaningless by one participant were listed as meaningful by someone else.” Our unique personalities and traits to our job structure preferences drive these differences.

However, there is a single effort that leads to experiencing meaningful work – reflection, specifically reflecting on what we have accomplished and what we are currently doing. According to a 2016 study by business professors Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden, we do not experience our purpose or have a feeling of meaning in the moment. But instead, we experience meaningfulness when we stop to reflect on our work and make connections between our accomplishments and their broader impact.

If we don’t spend time connecting our actions and their positive impacts, our jobs continue to feel meaningless and lead to dissatisfaction. So, we must commit to reflecting on what we accomplish to achieve our desired sense of purpose.

Commit to spending at least 10 minutes once a week to reflect on your work, the results it delivers, and the lives it impacts. Start by exploring  who or what benefits from your work beyond the direct tasks you complete, such as your:

  • Team: Outline how your collaborative effort with coworkers helps to problems or finish a major project. Or how your new ideas or ways of doing things make their job better, easier, or safer.
  • Customers: Reflect on how what you produce or contribute to makes their lives better, easier, or safer; by providing “best-in-class” products or services that eliminate frustration, improve their productivity, etc.
  • Society: Expand your thoughts to reach beyond your organization, customers, or partners to determine how your work benefits your community, the environment, or humankind. At first, you might believe only those in healthcare, education, or not-for-profit organizations experience a sense of meaning or purpose at this level. But our impact on society is all about perspective and is a universal phenomenon. Remember the story of the NASA janitor who described his job as “putting a man on the moon” to President Kennedy during the space race of the 1970s?
  • Personal success: Analyze how your job helps you learn, develop, and grow. Are you building on your existing skills that will lead to new opportunities? What significant project did you complete, or what milestone did you achieve? How did it build your knowledge?

Also, reflect on what your job enables that is meaningful to you. What can you experience thanks to your paycheck, provide for your family, travel, or spend downtime pursuing new experiences? Or, what interactions happen because you work? Who do you have the opportunity to meet while commuting, in meetings, at events, etc.?

To fully benefit from your reflection, think beyond the tasks you complete to consider their importance or their “why”; for you, your team, your customers, or society. Your efforts matter, so keep pushing yourself to identify all the benefits they produce.