Meaningful Work

In 1884, the designer and socialist William Morris delivered a lecture entitled Useful Work versus Useless Toil, in which he said that “worthy” work involves three characteristics that useless toil lacks: “hope of rest, hope of product, hope of pleasure in the work itself”.[1] By this, Morris meant that useful work isn’t monotonous or seemingly unending, but creates useful products, and that the act of producing them is enjoyable.

Studies of the present-day labour market suggest that Morris’s intuitions were largely correct. Evidence shows that what matters most is not just earning enough to make ends meet, but finding a job that is rewarding – that is, doing meaningful work.

For example, in a US study (Cascio, 2003), employees were asked in 1973 and again 1996 to rank the top job characteristics. There was almost no change in the results between the two surveys. In both surveys, the top job characteristic is “work is important and gives feelings of accomplishment (intrinsic)”, i.e. work that is inherently meaningful. After meaningfulness comes: 2) opportunities for promotion, 3) income, 4) job security and 5) working hours.

What has changed since the first of those surveys were carried out is the nature of the labour market and workers’ relation to it. Cascio (2003) calls this a change in the “psychological contract” with work. Today’s labour market is characterised by uncertainty, temporariness, flexibility, self-reliance and lifelong learning. Unemployment is low, but for most people wage growth has stagnated since the global financial crisis. Although more people today are generally more positive about their jobs, they are also more likely to feel stress and have less flexibility in working.[2] These conditions have increased the extent to which meaningful work is an issue in today’s workplace (Overell, 2008). In 2015, for example, 37% of British workers think that their job is meaningless.[3]

Recent research helps us to understand what makes work meaningful – or meaningless. Bailey & Madden (2016) interviewed 135 people working in very different jobs – retail assistants, artists, clergy, academics, scientists, nurses and entrepreneurs. Based on these interviews, they identify a list of factors that make work meaningful:

  1. Self-transcendent – work is meaningful when it matters to others, not just to self.
  2. Poignant – meaningfulness is not just a sense of unalloyed joy, but is associated with mixed, uncomfortable or even painful thoughts and feelings
  3. Episodic – work is never constantly meaningful, it comes in peaks and that cannot be forced or managed, but these are usually memorable
  4. Reflective – meaningfulness is rarely experienced in the moment, but rather in moments that afford retrospective reflection
  5. Personal – meaningfulness is contextualised in personal life, and rarely features organisations and management

As more educated people occupy more high-skilled jobs, the increase in the ‘knowledge economy’ does not necessarily make work more meaningful. But it does create the conditions for it to grow. Importantly, research shows that “organisations cannot and should not attempt to ‘manage meaning’” (Overell, 2008). Instead, meaningful work stems from a combination of vocation – that is, a calling to work in the service of others – and self-realisation (personal experience) of that service. Bailey & Madden’s (2016) research supports this idea, showing that it is difficult for employers to develop meaningfulness in the workplace, but also that meaningfulness is fragile and is easily destroyed. The right approach is to consider meaningfulness at a variety of levels, from organisational meaningfulness to job meaningfulness:

For organizations seeking to manage meaningfulness, the ethical and moral responsibility is great, since they are bridging the gap between work and personal life. Yet the benefits for individuals and organizations that accrue from meaningful workplaces can be immense. Organizations that succeed in this are more likely to attract, retain, and motivate the employees they need to build sustainably for the future, and to create the kind of workplaces where human beings can thrive. (Bailey & Madden, 2016)


Bailey, C. & Madden, A. (2016). What Makes Work Meaningful – Or Meaningless. MIT Sloan Management Review, 01 June 2016.

Cascio, W.F. (2003). ‘Changes in Workers, Work, and Organizations’. In: Handbook of Psychology, vol. 12, chap. 16, ed. W. Borman, R. Klimoski & D. Ilgen. New York: Wiley.

Overell, S. (2008). Inwardness: The rise of meaningful work. Provocation Series, 4(2). The Work Foundation.