Feature

What do you do? That's often one of the first questions people ask when they meet someone new — not surprising given that most adults spend most of their waking hours at work and that our jobs can influence our lives even outside the workplace. Our work can be a big part of our identity and offer insights into what is important to us, making it a rich area of psychological study.

Several recent studies have concentrated on a particular aspect of work: finding meaning in it. Through their research, experts have gleaned new insights, showing that meaningful work is good for the worker and for the company — and that even employees in tiresome jobs can find ways to make their duties more meaningful.

"Work can make people miserable. Losing work can make people pretty unhappy, too," says Michael F. Steger, PhD, an associate professor of counseling psychology and applied social psychology at Colorado State University. "So are there ways to use work to improve lives?"

Building cathedrals

In a 2010 review, Brent D. Rosso, PhD, and colleagues noted that finding meaning in one's work has been shown to increase motivation, engagement, empowerment, career development, job satisfaction, individual performance and personal fulfillment, and to decrease absenteeism and stress (Research in Organizational Behavior, 2010).

Unfortunately, meaningful work may not be the norm. According to State of the American Workplace, a new report by Gallup Inc., only 30 percent of the U.S. workforce is engaged in their work — in other words, they're passionate about their work and feel strongly committed to their companies. The remaining 70 percent of American workers are either "not engaged" or "actively disengaged" in their work (Gallup, 2013). Gallup defines unengaged workers as those who are "checked out," putting in time but without much energy or passion. Actively disengaged workers, meanwhile, act out on their unhappiness, taking up more of their managers' time and undermining what their co-workers accomplish.

That disengagement takes a toll. Actively disengaged workers, the report states, are more likely to steal from their organizations, negatively influence co-workers, miss workdays and drive customers away. According to Gallup, active disengagement costs U.S. companies $450 billion to $550 billion per year.

Of course, there are different ways to find meaning in one's work, says Michael G. Pratt, PhD, a professor of management and organization at Boston College. To illustrate this, he points to the old tale of three bricklayers hard at work. When asked what they're doing, the first bricklayer responds, "I'm putting one brick on top of another." The second replies, "I'm making six pence an hour." And the third says, "I'm building a cathedral — a house of God."

"All of them have created meaning out of what they've done, but the last person could say what he's done is meaningful," Pratt says. "Meaningfulness is about the why, not just about what."

Something that's meaningful for one person may be inconsequential for another, however. What makes work worthwhile to you probably depends on your culture, your socioeconomic status and how you were taught to see the world, according to Pratt. An academic might find value in scholarship, for instance. "But a firefighter might look at an academic and ask, ‘Are you helping people on a daily basis? If not, it's not worthwhile work at all.'"

People assign significance to their work in a variety of ways, as Pratt and doctoral students Douglas Lepisto and Camille Pradies describe in a chapter in the 2013 book "Purpose and Meaning in the Workplace." Some may derive meaning not from the job itself, but from the fact that it allows them to provide for their families and pursue non-work activities that they enjoy. Others may find meaning in being able to advance themselves and be the best they can be. People with a craftsmanship orientation take pride in performing the job well. Those with a service orientation find purpose in the ideology or belief system behind their work. Still others extract meaning from the sense of kinship they experience with co-workers.

Craftsmanship, service and kinship orientations are especially likely to be meaningful, as they all point to something beyond the individual, says Pratt.

Steger, too, has zeroed in on the idea that meaningful work is bigger than one's self. He and his colleagues recently created a tool for measuring meaningful work (Journal of Career Assessment, 2012). This "Work and Meaning Inventory" assesses three components, he says: The feeling that the work has some purpose, evidence that the meaning derived from work feeds into the meaning one feels in life as a whole, and the idea that the work somehow benefits a greater good.

As one might imagine, meaningful work and job satisfaction are linked, says Steger. In his 2012 paper, he found that having meaningful work predicts job satisfaction. But meaningful work was actually better than job satisfaction at predicting absenteeism – people who found their work more meaningful were less likely to miss work than people who merely reported being satisfied with their jobs. Meaningful work was also correlated with life satisfaction and less depression.

A higher calling

Researchers have found that workers who feel a higher calling to their jobs are among the most content. Take zookeepers, for example. Though more than eight in 10 zookeepers have college degrees, their average annual income is less than $25,000. The typical job description involves scrubbing enclosures, scooping waste and spending time in the elements. There's little room for advancement and zookeepers tend not to be held in high regard, says Stuart Bunderson, PhD, a professor of organizational behavior at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis (Administrative Science Quarterly, 2009).

Nonetheless, zookeepers are a passionate bunch. Many volunteer for months or even years until a paid position opens up, Bunderson says. He and Jeffery Thompson, PhD, at Brigham Young University, began studying zookeepers while investigating ideological motivations for work. Initially, they suspected the zoo's conservation mission probably motivated the keepers. While that was partly true, they found, it turned out their inspiration went deeper.

"There was this idea that they were born to do this work," Bunderson says. "Working as a zookeeper felt like a personal destiny to many of them. They even shared stories about how events led them to the zoo, as if by fate."

What Bunderson and Thompson zeroed in on among the zookeepers was a sense of calling. "You can say work is meaningful because you enjoy it or it serves some purpose," Bunderson says, "but a calling makes that work personal."

People who feel called to their careers are likely to find their work deeply meaningful, he says. Their personal connection with the job makes even the most trivial tasks feel significant. Often the experience of a calling comes with social benefits as well. People who felt called to be zookeepers tended to feel that their co-workers experienced the same motivation and sense of duty. "It's not just that you do the same work, but you're the same kind of people," Bunderson explains. "It gives you a connection to a community."

Having a sense of calling can affect not only what you do but where you do it. Pratt and colleagues found that among physicians, those who said medicine was their calling felt more attached to the hospital or health-care facility in which they worked (Journal of Vocational Behavior, 2011). He suspects that's because, for physicians, hospitals are instrumental in helping them reach their goals. "It's hard to be a freelance physician," he says.

Yet having a calling is "a double-edged sword," Bunderson says. If you feel you were born to do something, it's awfully hard to walk away from it. "You put up with sacrifices and difficulties. You're more vulnerable to exploitation, since managers who know you're deeply committed know they can treat you in ways that are less than respectful," he says. "Deep meaning doesn't come cheap."

Calling may be more prevalent in some fields than in others. In not-yet published work, Bunderson studied business school graduates dating back 30 years. He found those in nonprofit and health-care settings were more likely to experience a sense of calling than management professionals in other sectors. In similar unpublished work, he found that public administrators and government employees are more likely to feel called to their work than are their counterparts in the private sector.

Does that mean certain jobs are inherently more meaningful than others? Not necessarily, Steger says, though work that benefits others does seem most likely to be considered meaningful. People also seem to find more value in their work when they're using — and being appreciated for — their unique talents, he says. "Being able to use your strengths to really shine and make an impact seems to be a huge part" of meaningful work, he says.

Interestingly, one element that may not be terribly important to meaningfulness is salary. The 2013 Gallup report found that employees with college degrees are less likely than those with less education to report being engaged in their work — even though a college degree leads to higher lifetime earnings, on average.

That makes sense to Pratt. "My grandfather was a glazier, and he found his work quite meaningful. When I asked my grandfather, ‘What did you do today?' he could tell me exactly what he built," he says. In his own university job, Pratt says he might spend a workday writing a few pages and sitting in meetings. At the end of the day, there's nothing concrete to show for his efforts.

"If we're not doing anything tangible, if we don't know what the standards are for good work versus bad work, then it's difficult for people to try to figure out why their work is meaningful," he says.

Make your own meaning

Fortunately, you don't have to become a glazier or a zookeeper to find meaning at work, says Jane E. Dutton, PhD, a professor of business administration and psychology at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. Rather, you can redefine your job in personally meaningful ways, through a process she and her colleagues describe as "job crafting" (Purpose and Meaning in the Workplace, 2013).

"Meaning doesn't take money," she says. "At any rank, people can make different meanings of their work, and also of themselves at work."

Employees can shape their work experiences in three broad ways, Dutton says. The first is by altering the tasks they perform. Every job has elements that make it feel like, well, work. But most employees do have some leeway to tweak their duties. "You can be an architect of the tasks," Dutton says.

Employees might choose to spend more energy on existing tasks they find particularly gratifying, for example. A professor might find she's most fulfilled when interacting with students. She may decide to limit the time she contributes to university committees so that she has more time to work with students. In some cases, adding fulfilling tasks can benefit you even if it increases your overall workload.

Second, Dutton says, employees can change relationships in the workplace. "We never make meaning in a vacuum. Work is very social," she says. Spending time with toxic co-workers can drain meaning from the most gratifying jobs. But just a few moments spent collaborating with a valued colleague can be reinvigorating. "Even if you talk to someone for five minutes, if it's someone you have a high-quality connection with, it's like taking a vitamin," she says.

Finally, a person can use cognitive restructuring to reframe the way he or she thinks about work. Steger mentions an accountant who worked at a community college. She found her work very meaningful not because she kept the accounts balanced, but because she felt her work allowed others to advance themselves through education. "For all these things in our jobs that we just don't like, we can take a step back and link it to the things that really matter," he says.

The zookeepers also illustrate the power of framing your job to see the big picture. They are able to find meaning in cleaning cages because they believe such tasks are vital to the bigger mission — not only caring for individual animals, but in fact helping to preserve entire species. "The more you look for the benefits of what you're doing, the more it feeds you psychologically," Dutton says.

Job crafting can pay off for employees and employers. As Steger has shown, finding one's work meaningful is associated with life satisfaction and overall well-being. Organizations, too, benefit from workers who are invested in their jobs. The Gallup report found that engaged workers are most likely to build new products and services, attract new customers and drive innovation.

However, Dutton notes, there is a potential drawback to emphasizing how employees can create their own meaning at work. "People could argue that this contributes to how organizations can extract labor from people," she says. In other words: "I'll give you a crappy job and it's up to you to make something good out of it," she adds.

Despite that risk, however, Dutton and her colleagues see plenty of value in helping people find ways to make the most of what they have. After all, workers may not have the power to change their organizations, but they can change the way they frame their own duties.

Dutton is particularly interested in helping people in low-status jobs. Surprisingly, she's found that such workers may actually be in a better position to craft their jobs than are people at higher ranks (Journal of Organizational Behavior, 2010).

She found people with less power and autonomy in their organizations actually saw more opportunities to influence and build trust with other people. For instance, one customer-service representative who Dutton interviewed asserted herself with her supervisor and asked to join a website committee — a role that added tasks to her formal job description but allowed her to do something she was passionate about. By contrast, high-status employees were reluctant to impose on others, and were therefore less likely to involve other people in crafting their jobs.

Having witnessed too many workers constrained by Michigan's depressed economy, Dutton says she's seen firsthand how small changes can make a big difference for individuals, especially those at lower ranks.

"These are people who were happy to have a job, but the work stunk. I could see the power of helping them have hope," she says. "It shouldn't change the push for organizations to be fairer and better. But at the same time, I want more self-empowerment for workers to craft their work in ways that will make it less depleting and more enriching."

Kirsten Weir is a writer in Minneapolis.