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Meaningful work or Meaning from work

By David Penglase

Trying to make people ‘happy’ at work is the wrong way to be approaching any rethink about the way we work.

In this article I will explore the difference between meaningful work and finding meaning from work.

I recently read a superbly written article by Barry Schwartz in the NY Times with the headline ‘Rethinking Work’

It was a great reminder about the impact of our mindset toward the intentional and unintentional choices we make during the vast amount of time we spend (or is it invest) in our working hours.

Not everyone will have meaningful work!

Not everyone will be able to secure their ideal job and it’s probably more accurate to say that very few will. However, it is obvious I would think to most if not all of us that our work and the way we think about our work, will have a direct impact on our psychological and physical well-being.

Schwartz’s article highlights a range of research studies that reinforce the importance of a fair pay for a fair day’s work, and more importantly, the direct and significantly positive impact on productivity and profitability that can be created when people find meaning and satisfaction in their job roles, beyond just a focus on what they are paid.

Lessons from a sleeper cutter

My Dad was a sleeper cutter. From about the age of 15 he would be up at 6:00am, heading off to the nearby Gunbower state forest and would locate the red gum trees that the local forestry commission had marked as being ok for Dad to cut down and cut up into sleepers that he would then sell to the state rail commission which were then used to support the train tracks around Victoria. Dad’s typical day would end at about 3:30pm. He worked in heat, rain, dust, wind and whatever nature sent his way. He survived snake bites and broken bones from wayward falling branches off the trees he would be cutting down. He survived serious cuts from broken chainsaws and shattered sawblades. It was tough work.

I recently asked Dad who is now 83 was he happy at work. His answer ought to be posted on every happiologist’s forehead. His answer was “<em>I wouldn’t call how I felt at work ‘happy’. It was just what I did, I did it well, it wasn’t easy work, and I was glad to retire</em>.” So I asked Dad a second question which was “What did working as a sleeper cutter mean to you?” Dad answered “<em>Well it meant I could fend for my family, put food on the table, and we could do things together that if I didn’t earn the money we wouldn’t be able to do. I was proud to be a sleeper cutter – not because it was better or worse than any other job, but it was what I did – I was a sleeper cutter, and a bloody good one at that.</em>”

Finding Meaning From Work

As I’ve written above, not everyone is going to find meaningful work, however, I am convinced by all of the research I’ve been doing about the connections and impact of meaning and work, that most people can find meaning from working (this is not the same as meaningful work). I’m also convinced, with what I started this post with, and that is trying to make people ‘happy’ at work is the wrong way to be approaching any rethink about the way we work.

How do you think about your work? How do you feel about what you do, how you do it, why you do it? What do you think about the relationships you have at work? When you’re at work, and doing your work, how engaged are you in using your skills, knowledge and attributes? These are just some of the questions that my research highlights as being important for each of us to ask of ourselves. Finding meaning from work will be for most of us more achievable than trying to pursue meaningful work. The difference may be subtle, but its significant and can have a reciprocally valuable impact on each of us as individuals, as well as for the organisations that we work for.

Warm regards,


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