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Opinion: Why meaningful work enhance wellbeing for both individuals and society

3 min read

Meaningful work has emerged as a crucial consideration in the war for talent. In the sustainability and built environment industries I have observed an assumption that the purpose of sustainability is enough to drive meaningful work for those engaged in this field. However, as many organisations across different industries rethink their purpose and promote how they contribute to society, purpose alone is no longer enough. Navigating the complexities of a modern workplace requires an understanding of what makes work meaningful for professionals and academics in your sector.  

 The limits of previous research  

In 2019 we initiated our ongoing research into meaningful work, which has continued into 2023 and now incorporates input from more than 5000 individuals. Initially we conducted an extensive academic review of published literature and identified significant gaps. There had never been any research into meaningful work specifically for Australia. Also, there was no consistent definition of meaningful work, no consistent techniques to measure it, and previous approaches were built on explicit and restrictive assumptions.  

A key concern we identified in the previous research was the assumption that the importance of specific factors contributing to meaningful work remains constant throughout an individual’s lifetime. The significance of these factors can, in actuality, vary from person to person and change over time. For example, you may place great importance on salary due to your financial commitments, but this may shift towards other aspects as your circumstances change. Unfortunately, earlier studies failed to account for these dynamics, limiting their effectiveness in understanding meaningful work comprehensively.

The integrated approach: uniting the psychological and sociological perspectives  

The previous studies predominantly fell into two schools of thought: the psychological perspective, focusing on individual experiences, beliefs, values, and attitudes; and the sociological perspective, which emphasises how social and cultural systems assign value to our work activities. Making our research world-first, we recognised that a comprehensive understanding required an integrated approach, encompassing both psychological and sociological aspects. This perspective acknowledges the complex interplay between the individual, the job, the organisation, and the society and culture in which they operate.   

To illustrate the impact of cultural perspectives on the perception of meaningful work, consider how the appreciation shown to different professions changed during the pandemic. For instance, the tribute given to healthcare workers increased significantly even across many different cultures, reflecting the changed value society assigned to their work. The integrated perspective suggests that understanding how various cultures view specific jobs is vital to defining and evaluating meaningful work accurately.  

The increasing importance of meaningful work  

Our research confirmed that the pursuit of meaningful work is an innate human need. As traditional sources of community and social support decline, work has become a crucial source of personal identity and significance. The initial survey in 2019 found that 71 per cent of people believed that meaningful work had become more important than it had been 5 years previously, and the importance of meaningful work was reconfirmed in our 2023 Meaningful Work Insights Report.  

Unsurprisingly, 98 per cent of surveyed individuals agreed on the importance of having meaningful work. Moreover, meaningful work positively impacts job satisfaction, career development, work stress, and overall health and well-being. Organisations also reap benefits from creating meaningful work, as employees exhibit higher engagement levels, reduced sick leave, and greater commitment to the organisation, leading to improved organisational performance – even during challenging times.  

Defining and measuring meaningful work  

Despite its undeniable importance, finding meaningful work remains a challenge for many. The research highlighted three historic hurdles in this pursuit: lack of clarity in understanding what meaningful work truly entails, the inability to define or measure it accurately, and limited knowledge about the diverse pathways through which meaningful work can be achieved.   

As a result, we defined meaningful work as the importance an individual places on their work meeting their current personal beliefs, values, goals, expectations, and purpose in the context of their social and cultural environment. Further, we created a freely available tool to measure meaningful work, the meaningful work profile tool (MWPT), and continue to release many resources to help individuals and organisations create more sustainable meaningful work.   

The quest for meaningful work holds immense significance in the sustainability and built environment industries. By acknowledging the gaps in previous research and embracing an integrated perspective that combines psychological and sociological aspects, you can gain a deeper understanding of what makes work truly meaningful. This knowledge empowers you to create workplaces that generate meaningful work, leading to increased job satisfaction, improved organisational performance, and enhanced well-being for both individuals and society.   

Related:Opinion: Everyone’s path to meaningful work is unique, are you in the right lane?

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Nina Mapson Bone, author of Meaningful Work: Unlock your unique path to career fulfilment, is a highly sought after speaker on the subjects of meaningful work, and talent attraction, retention and development.


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