Five ways to make work meaningful: Michael Steger on why we’re losing our purpose, and how to regain it

Meaningful work is about more than just the money.

At a breakfast talk in Melbourne this morning, Michael Steger, an Associate Professor of Psychology from Colorado State University in the United States, explained the relationship between meaning and the workplace. The breakfast was held as part of National Psychology Week, which runs from November 10-16.

During the talk, Steger said work is a lot like “solar power”.

“You don’t have to get any benefit from it,” he said. “But we can collect energy from work because the economy collects energy from us.”

Steger says too often the boundary between work and our personal lives is blurred.

“That trend is going to continue, we’re going to have to produce more. And our labour is our life – we only have so many minutes.”

Steger says part of this blurring is that technology such as smartphones has played a significant role in people giving more of their time to their employer.

“You can be reached, so why shouldn’t you? It’s eroding our sense of what work is and what life is.

“A lot of the time, if we work harder and more often we don’t actually earn more. We don’t gain more freedom or that thing we can never buy – which is time.”

However, the solution to this issue could be to redefine our work-life culture.

“If we’re being asked to give more to work from our personal lives, can we ask work to give us more in our personal lives?”

According to Steger, meaningful work is the sense that our tasks matter and feed the creation of significant meaning in our life and beyond. He says it is up to the individual to decide what their meaning is. If it were up to society, we would only be doing jobs that generate lots of profit. He says no one benefits when an individual gives up all of their personal life for work.

Steger offers these five tips to help make your work more meaningful:

1. Your tasks need to have a point

If someone has a job where they are not sure of what they are doing, they are likely to be dissatisfied. It is helpful to understand why you are making a spreadsheet, or where the documents are kept once you file them.

2. Your work should align with your overall life meaning

Your job is going to be difficult to find meaningful if it directly conflicts with what gives you meaning elsewhere. If your family is the main source of a meaningful life, but your work requires you to travel and keep away from them for long periods of time, then you are unlikely to be fulfilled with both.

3. Allow for flexibility

People appreciate autonomy and self-direction. Although we always make mistakes, you are not going to be innovative if people are not self-directed. The simple fact is that if you treat your workers like rubbish then you will get rubbish work.

4. Know the company’s mission statement

Organisations must have a vision that is shared. You are unlikely to find meaning in your work life if you are unaware of what the business stands for. It is surprising how many people cannot recite their organisation’s mission statement off by heart.

5. Identify those who are ‘good citizen workers’

These are the sorts of people who do that little bit extra for the business, such as washing and drying the coffee mugs. Creating an environment where everyone pulls together and acts like a close-knit neighbourhood will give the workplace more meaning. 

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