Any job can be meaningful.
In some fields, you don’t have to search hard to connect with the greater purpose behind your work – firefighters save people and families from devastation in times of crisis, medical staff help ensure we live as long as possible, and teachers shape the minds of our future leaders.
But what if you don’t have a career in public service? Are general functional roles like operations or logistics inherently lacking a larger, greater purpose? And if so, does that mean that employees in standard corporate professions are resigned to finding purpose in other ways in their lives?
Not quite. According to research, we can all connect with the deeper purpose behind our work -- No matter how seemingly mundane or even dirty our roles may be. It turns out that how we frame our work (rather than what we do) is the most critical element to connecting with the greater meaning, purpose and increasing our satisfaction with our roles.
· Job vs. Calling: In one experiment, researchers worked with service-oriented groups of workers (teachers and custodians) to determine whether they felt their jobs were “just jobs” or a calling. Surprisingly, the answers were split almost equally across both groups: 50% of custodians felt their roles were callings, and 50% felt their roles were just long-term jobs. Interestingly enough, teachers also demonstrated a 50-50 split. Not surprisingly, the participants who framed their roles as “a calling” perform better and experience more job satisfaction. It’s almost intuitive if you think about it: one school janitor laments about how much “it sucks to clean up the trash of bratty kids” and another takes pride in ensuring that students have a sanitary and healthy environment to optimize their learning.
· Finding the Why: In another experiment, accountants at a large firm with notoriously low engagement were asked to think about how the most mundane elements of their work contributed to a greater purpose: ensuring accuracy for the clients that they served and relieving them of a massive burden that could often result in mistakes without their assistance. This reframing resulted in improved productivity, faster processing times and higher engagement.
Now that we know that reframing is the most critical element of finding meaning, how exactly can we do that?
· Determine and (constantly) reflect on how your work is an act of service: Connect and reflect on the actual population that your work is serving, whether you’re serving them directly (e.g. consultants are serving their client; human resources officer are serving the employees of a company; teachers are serving students and parents) or indirectly (you work in order to provide for your family, care for an aging parent or invest in your children’s education).
· Invest in positive relationships with your colleagues: Having collegial relationships with the people around you, whether informally, or through formal relationships like mentoring programs, can be a large driver of job satisfaction. Make an effort to invest in your work relationships – this can be a simple as sending a note of gratitude, or making the time to connect over lunch once a month.
· Make your work a craft: Research shows that not just completing your work, but crafting it, or making the work that you want to do out of what you’ve been assigned, drives engagement, satisfaction, and resilience. For example, in one study, the happiest and most effective members of custodial staff at a top-performing hospital would rearrange the artwork in patients’ rooms to stimulate their brains, or devoted times to learning about various cleaning chemicals and then customizing the treatments used in certain rooms to avoid aggravating any conditions.
If you live in a developed nation, it is likely that one third of your life will be spent at work but that doesn’t have to be an inherently bad thing: if we put effort into finding meaning and purpose into our chosen fields, even the most mundane tasks will be more enjoyable and we will find ourselves happier and more successful.
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