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How Meaningful Work Galvanizes Employee Motivation – But Can Be A Double-Edged Sword

Photo by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash

Meaningful work has become a huge focus not only for employees looking for fulfilment but for employers, thanks to its huge business impact, however there is a fine line between highly engaged employees and burn-out that too many employers (or managers) exploit - are you unknowingly guilty of this?



We all instinctively know what meaningful work feels like. Or what it should feel like, if we’ve been unlucky enough never to experience it.

It’s leaping out of bed on Monday versus sinking into dread on Sunday. It’s talking your friend or partner's ear off about that insanely cool project you’re working on. It’s working late without realising you’re working late (although that has its problems, which we’ll talk about…)

To use a technical definition, meaningful work is “rooted in an individual’s subjective judgment of the work’s personal and social significance.” That is, how important your work feels to you based on your own framework of values. And when work feels meaningful, “people feel they have a more meaningful life in general, […] providing them with a sense of purpose and significance”.

Quite the responsibility, when you put it like that. Meaningful work as a tool to ward off the knowledge of our impending doom and help us feel significant in an ocean of insignificance… 🥺

Existential benefits aside though, meaningful work has become a huge focus not only for employees looking for fulfilment but for employers, thanks to its huge business impact. 

In the midst of a decades-long burn-out epidemic – one that’s only been exacerbated by the pandemic – HR leaders are understandably eager to safeguard their people’s well-being, spur employee motivation, and protect the business. 

Given 9 in 10 people would be happy to earn less money in exchange for more meaningful work, making work meaningful is an important piece in the employee motivation puzzle. And can be a powerful weapon in the war against burn-out (although it can also be an own goal, if not carefully managed). 

Let’s unpick that. 

Unlocking employee motivation by making work meaningful 

The recognition of the importance of meaning at work isn’t new. In fact, meaningful work has been a hot topic for near-on fifty years.

Back in the mid-70s, for example, J. Richard Hackman and Greg R. Oldham published their influential report, ‘Motivation through the Design of Work: Test of a theory’. In the piece, they introduce a model for redesigning work to better motivate employees, identifying ‘experienced meaningfulness’ as one of the core psychological states that fuel employee motivation. 

Since then, everyone who’s anyone has jumped on the meaning bandwagon. ‘Meaning is the new money!’, Harvard Business Review shouted in 2011, followed by a slew of (often brilliant) content around helping your people find meaning, feel a sense of purpose at work, and ultimately drive business impact.

Today, you can barely walk down the metaphorical Google highway without bumping into thought-leadership content on purpose and meaning from the McKinseys, Gallups and Deloittes of the world.

Ignite purpose, these articles say. Unleash meaning. Energize your people. Powerful verbs for a powerful motivator and a crucial prong of employee engagement. And, of course, the flipside is also true. A lack of meaningful work is a primary driver of disengagement, stress, and burn-out. 

If, like so many HR folks right now, you’re staring down the barrel of escalating work stress, compounding dissatisfaction, spiralling absenteeism, and the early warning signs of plummeting retention, meaningful work could be the start of an answer.

Ultimately that starts from the top. Leaders are responsible for communicating strategy, purpose, mission, and values downwards and acting with integrity towards them. 

If they’re falling short, HR leaders must work first with leadership to galvanize culture change. Against that backdrop, distributed HR and manager-led actions can have a bigger impact. (Think of meaning like a garden. Individual flowers might thrive, or not, in any garden but most flowers will be better served by rich, fertilized soil than arid desert.)

A word of warning though – meaningful work is nowhere near a magic bullet for galvanizing employee motivation and preventing burn-out. Actually, it can sometimes be more like a wolf in sheep’s clothing…

Meaningful work as a cloak for poor working practices and culture

Lack of meaning at work is a primary source of burn-out, work stress and disengagement, but that doesn’t mean the opposite always holds true. Meaningful work can safeguard against burn-out – and it’s concretely established that people who feel their work has meaning will work harder, longer, taking on more challenging tasks with gusto. 

But that’s exactly the problem. 

Burn-out refers to a state of emotional, physical, or mental exhaustion due to ongoing stress – and guess what are great drivers of stress? Working harder, longer, on more challenging tasks, without appropriate process and culture safeguards to prevent overwork.  

Do employees working for charities ever get burnt-out? Do people working in hospitals, making a difference for sick and dying people every day? Do missionaries, or volunteers, or teachers, or carers?

The obviousness of the answer highlights the mistake of seeing meaningful work as a bulletproof vest against burn-out. Take any of the most purpose-led, stereotypically meaningful roles you can imagine, you’ll still find your fair share of burnt-out employees.

Perhaps even more than your fair share. 90% of charity workers report feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or burnt-out over the last year, for example. 90%...! 

Meaningful work can actually be counterproductive for getting a handle on burn-out because it pushes employees to work when they otherwise might recognize the need to scale back, pause, ask for help; protect their well-being. 

As Gallup emphasize, meaningful work matters BUT “the best organizations know there is no meaningful mission or purpose in the absence of clear expectations, ongoing conversations and accountability.” 

  • Meaning isn’t a substitute for setting clear expectations.
  • Meaning isn’t a substitute for balanced working processes
  • Meaning isn’t a substitute for work-life balance.
  • Meaning isn’t a substitute for a culture of transparency and accountability.
  • Meaning isn’t a substitute for recognition and appreciation.
  • Meaning isn’t a substitute for learning and development.
  • Meaning isn’t a substitute for the right tools and processes. 
  • Meaning isn’t a substitute for personal and professional support. 

But meaning can motivate employees to continually try and give their best in spite of lacking those things – and that’s a sure-fire way to cause burn-out. 

For all the content out there promising easy fixes and straightforward solutions, addressing burn-out – and the climbing absenteeism, creeping disengagement, and plummeting productivity that comes with it – is a complex, nuanced challenge. 

Working with leaders and managers to make work meaningful is one step you can take – but it mustn’t happen in isolation, or it can fast become an own goal.



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