- Defining meaningful work. Meaningful work is often defined as the overall judgment that one’s work accomplishes significant, valuable, or worthwhile goals that are congruent with one’s existential values.
- The value of meaningful work. Meaningful work is strongly linked with work engagement, commitment and job satisfaction.
- Improved well-being. People who believe they are doing meaningful work are generally healthier and have a better psychological well-being.
- Higher performance. Meaningful work is strongly linked with work engagement, which is demonstrated to strongly predict task performance.
Editor’s Note: This is the continuation of Workspan Daily articles in partnership with the Center for Evidence-Based Management (CEBMa) that utilizes research as evidence to inform decision-making for the benefit of our readers and to encourage further discourse on topics vital to the total rewards profession.
It’s often written and discussed that employees covet meaningful work. However, there’s less details around what is meant by meaningful work and what the ultimate effect is when those opportunities are provided by an organization.
The Center for Evidence-Based Management (CEBMa) conducted research to answer these questions and more, which are explained below.
The first question the research aimed to answer is: What is meant by meaningful work?
Scholars have defined and operationalized meaningful work in various ways and sometimes use different terms interchangeably. Early studies define meaningful work as workers’ perception that their work is worthwhile, important, or valuable. More recent studies use a broader, multidimensional conceptualization that include aspects of the self (e.g. self-actualization and personal growth) and aspects of being other-oriented (e.g. helping others and contributing to the greater good). In addition, they focus on “meaningful experiences,” rather than meaningful work itself.
As such, meaningful work does not reflect a continuous psychological state. Rather, people have many episodic experiences at work that they perceive as meaningful (or meaningless), which they then integrate into a belief system about the significance of their work. For this reason, meaningful work is often defined as the overall judgment that one’s work accomplishes significant, valuable, or worthwhile goals that are congruent with one’s existential values.
Question 2: What is the assumed logic model?
The assumed logic model for the effect of (perceived) meaningful work on organizational outcomes is based on the Job Characteristics Theory developed by Hackman and Oldham (1976). This theory states that there are five conditions (also referred to as job dimensions) necessary for people to be intrinsically motivated and have high performance at work: skill variety, task identity, task significance, autonomy, and feedback.
These conditions/characteristics subsequently lead to three critical psychological states — meaningful work, responsibility and knowledge of results — which then result in outcomes, such as work motivation, performance, job satisfaction and low absenteeism. According to this theory, employees experience positive effects when they perform well on a meaningful task. This positive effect is intrinsically motivating and creates a positive feedback loop of high performance, job satisfaction, and other positive organizational outcomes.
Finally, meaningful work is assumed to lead to a deep sense of commitment — an affective attachment people have to their organizations or careers — which in turn may lead to positive work outcomes.
Question 3: How can work meaningfulness be measured?
Because there is no commonly agreed upon definition of meaningful work, there are many different scales and assessment tools available. A recent literature review identified 28 different scales used to measure it, which can result in different results.
Question 4: What is the overall effect of work meaningfulness on organizational outcomes?
Finding 1. Work meaningfulness is strongly linked with work engagement, commitment and job satisfaction.
A large number of studies, including a recent meta-analysis, have consistently demonstrated that employees who perceive their work as meaningful display higher levels of work engagement, commitment, and job satisfaction. This outcome should not come as a surprise, as meaningful work, work engagement, commitment and job satisfaction may reflect the same underlying construct.
In fact, some scholars consider work engagement, commitment, and satisfaction as components of meaningful work. Other scholars, however, consider work engagement, commitment and job satisfaction as a direct outcome of meaningful work, suggesting that employees are more likely to engage at work, commit to the organization and are more satisfied with their job when they perceive their work as meaningful.
However, given the fact that most of the evidence is based on cross-sectional studies, the direction of this relation is not clear, meaning that work engagement, commitment, and job satisfaction may themselves lead to meaningful work.
Finding 2: Work meaningfulness is positively related to general health and psychological well-being.
Many studies have consistently demonstrated that employees who perceive their work as meaningful display higher levels of general health and psychological well-being. However, as stated above, given the fact that most of the evidence is based on cross-sectional studies, this could also mean that healthy employees who report high levels of well-being are more likely to perceive their work as meaningful.
Finding 3: Work meaningfulness is associated with higher performance.
Many studies suggest that employees who perceive their work as meaningful show higher levels of performance. The effect sizes found, however, are small to moderate. It should be noted, however, that meaningful work has direct relations with certain outcomes and indirect relations with others.
For example, as explained in Finding 1, work meaningfulness is strongly linked with work engagement. Several meta-analyses have demonstrated that work engagement is a strong predictor for task performance, even after controlling for job satisfaction and commitment.
Finding 4: Work meaningfulness moderates the relationship between work demands and stress and burnout.
Many studies indicate that work meaningfulness moderates (and sometimes mediates) the relationship between work demands and stress and burnout. Put differently, when employees perceive their work as meaningful, they may be less affected by the negative consequences (e.g. stress, emotional exhaustion, cynicism, burnout, depression) of high job demands and workload.
Finding 5: Additional outcomes of work meaningfulness.
Several studies included in this review have demonstrated associations with many additional work outcomes, such as withdrawal intentions, organizational identification, intention to leave, creativity, organizational citizenship behavior, quality of service, innovative behavior, personal initiative, perceived responsibility for work outcomes and whether people are likely to accept a lower salary. Most of these findings, however, are based on only one study, and should therefore be regarded as merely indicative.
Question 5: What is known about the (positive or negative) effect of possible moderators and/or mediators?
Finding 6: There may be contextual factors that moderate the relationship between meaningful work and its outcomes.
A recent meta-analysis states that aspects of the social context may be critical for translating meaningful work into positive outcomes. For example, having positive workplace relationships may be an important moderator. In addition, individual differences, like personal values or personality traits, may also be important moderators.
Question 6: What are antecedents of meaningful work?
Finding 7: There are several antecedents of meaningful work, but the evidence is limited.
As explained in Finding 1, the direction of the relationship between meaningful work and organizational outcomes is not clear — does meaningful work lead to a higher job performance, or do high performing employees perceive their work as more meaningful?
It is therefore hard to draw conclusions regarding the antecedents of meaningful work. Nevertheless, several studies have identified factors that may affect whether people perceive their work as meaningful. An overview of the factors with the largest effect sizes is provided below.
- Job characteristics such as skill variety, autonomy and feedback affect employees and their perception of meaningful work.
- Employees who perceive their organization as “socially responsible” (i.e. whether their organization integrates social and environmental concerns in its business operations) are more likely to perceive their work as meaningful.
- Ethical leadership, empowering leadership, responsible leadership, and transformational leadership positively influences the level of meaning employees experience in their work.
- Relationships with co-workers affect individual’s experiences of meaningfulness.
- People who see job demands as “challenges”(rather than hindrances) are more likely to perceive their work as meaningful.
- People who see their work as a “calling” and find that their work is inseparable from their life are more likely to perceive their work as meaningful.
Based on the existing research evidence, it can be concluded that beliefs about the value of one’s work (perceived meaningfulness) are strongly linked with work engagement, commitment, and job satisfaction, which in turn may lead to an increase in job performance.
In addition, meaningful work may enhance people’s general health and psychological well-being.