How do we find meaning or purpose at work?

by Derek Winter


I suspect we’ve all done it at some point. Turned up to work and sat at our desks finding ways to look busy, counting the time down until we can leave again. Basically achieving nothing of value and having no purpose for the day other than being there.

It’s not sustainable. Either the employer runs out of patience or the employee runs out of motivation to turn up each day.

However, all to often this is the mindset that exists. Work is seen as something that happens by being there, not something that we do that’s purposeful. That we’ve earn our wage by putting in 8 hours for the day regardless of whether we’ve contributed anything or not. There’s even a phrase coined for it - “Presenteeism”. There in body, but checked out and disengaged.

There is plenty of commentary today about finding meaning in our work. Doing something we’re passionate about, pursuing our dreams. This is all well and good, but it is not the reality for many of the working population. They work in organisations where the management is disconnected and disinterested. They work in jobs that have no inherent meaning such as alleviating poverty or improving people’s health would provide. To tell these people to be passionate and purposeful can verge on insulting and yet it’s no less important for their lives to have purpose than it is for the rest of us.

At therein lies the key. Our lives need purpose and our work is but one component of our lives. Without a sense of worth and purpose personally, we’re never going to be engaged and purposeful at work.

A wise friend of mine once said that in order to strive for work/life balance (a phrase I dislike, but more of that later) we need to have a life outside work in the first place. Otherwise there is nothing motivating us to leave work and dedicate our time and energy to something else.

In an article about making work more meaningful, Monique Valcour says we all  “have the ability to determine how we think about and respond to the conditions we experience, [and] have control over the meaning we derive from work.”

My contention is that in order to derive meaning from work where it does not extrinsically exist we need to have a sense of purpose and meaning in our lives in the first place. In the context of that, we can integrate our work as part of that meaning and purpose. For some it’s an economic equation where work provides the means to support their family and create opportunity. For others its an outlet to express their creativity. For some it’s the chance to serve and support other people. The list goes on and is endless.

And so the concept of work/life balance is flawed from my perspective because it alludes to the ideal that we can keep it in balance and I believe that’s unrealistic. If I work a 12 hour day or a 50 hour week, my family doesn’t get that time back. I can’t balance it out next week because the concert was on this week. It’s gone.

I prefer thinking about the concept of work/life harmony - all aspects of our life in harmony and fitting together. Each part contributing and making up the whole and if any part is missing or dominating the whole is reduced and less palatable.

How do we achieve this? First look at what is important in our lives across the board and what our passions are. What do we value and what are our gifts and skills? Who is significant to us? Then it is a matter of piecing together all of those parts into a meaningful whole. If we are sitting at our desk clock-watching we are not doing ourselves or our employer or those around us any good.

Perhaps the product or service the company we work for delivers is not fundamentally motivating or intrinsically valuable. Meaning in that case comes from our attitude towards what we do and how we do it. Monique’s example is of a call centre worker who found meaning in solving callers issues and making them feel good about the interaction. The mastery she demonstrated in her work provided her with meaning.

So, work can only be meaningful if it’s something we do for a reason and with a purpose, not somewhere we go and we can only attain that if we see it in light of our whole lives not as a disconnected part.