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Careers and professional development, Work and occupational

Increase the meaningfulness of your work by considering how it helps others

Blake Allan at Purdue University has provided evidence that seeing our work as benefiting others really does lead to an increase in our finding it meaningful.

05 September 2017

By Christian Jarrett

When we find our work meaningful and worthwhile, we are more likely to enjoy it, to be more productive, and feel committed to our employers and satisfied with our jobs. For obvious reasons, then, work psychologists have been trying to find out what factors contribute to people finding more meaning in their work.

Top of the list is what they call "task significance", which in plain English means believing that the work you do is of benefit to others. However, to date, most of the evidence for the importance of task significance has been correlational – workers who see how their work is beneficial to others are more likely to find it meaningful, but that doesn't mean that task significance is causing the feelings of meaningfulness.

Now Blake Allan at Purdue University has provided some of the first longitudinal evidence that seeing our work as benefiting others really does lead to an increase in our finding it meaningful. "These results are important both for the wellbeing of individual workers and as a potential avenue to increase productivity," he concludes in the Journal of Vocational Behaviour.

Blake contacted thousands of alumni of a university in Midwestern USA and asked them to complete a survey about their job, and then to complete it again three and six months later. Over 600 of them were in work and completed the survey at all three time points: just over half were female; they ranged in age from 22 to 82; and they were in a range of jobs, the most commonly cited titles being director, engineer, manager, teacher, professor and admin assistant.

At each survey point, the participants rated their agreement with four statements about the "task significance" of their work, such as "My job provides opportunities to substantially improve the welfare of others," and "A lot of others can be positively affected by how well my job gets done". They also rated their agreement with six statements about how meaningful they find their work to be, such as: "The work I do on this job is very important to me"; "My job activities are personally meaningful to me"; and "The work I do on this job is worthwhile".

Greater belief in task significance at an earlier time point tended to be followed by increasing ratings of work meaningfulness three months' later, and this was true regardless of previous meaningfulness levels, and whatever the participants' age, gender or social class. The reverse was not true: finding work to be more meaningful at an earlier time point wasn't associated with seeing it as more beneficial to others at later survey points.

These new data complement another recent study by the same researcher in which he experimentally manipulated participants to experience greater task significance (for instance by having them complete a task that they were told would benefit of others versus being told it would benefit themselves). He found that those told it would benefit others found the work more meaningful as compared with those doing it for themselves.

Taken together, Blake said it seems that "perceiving one's work as improving the welfare of others leads to the perception that it is personally meaningful, important and valuable." He added that employers might therefore be able to help workers to find their work more meaningful by helping them make contact with the people who benefit from their work, by increasing the influence of their work on others, or "creating a prosocial climate in the workplace". Also, he suggests we can help ourselves find our work more meaningful, for example by setting aside time each week to help others in our work, or writing about times we've helped others through our work.

A weakness of the new study is that the sample was predominantly made up of White people of higher social class. Although social class didn't moderate the longitudinal link between task significance and finding work meaningful in the current data this may be because there wasn't a wide enough range of social class in the sample. "Therefore, future studies should replicate the current findings and re-test social class as a moderator with more representative sample," Blake said.