Why employees want more meaning in the workplace

Employees are no longer content with just a pay cheque and good benefits.

There is a soul-searching epidemic afoot in the workplace where they want meaning and passion. Employees search for something greater than themselves to believe in and they cannot help but to extend that search to their work lives.

The search for meaning and purpose is a spiritual search for meaningfulness of one’s existence, a search for understanding how one’s life (including one’s work) fits into a larger context. It is a spiritual quest to find a reason for ‘being’ and a feeling that this ‘being’ is of significance and relates to a sense of fulfilling a higher purpose beyond just surviving, but having made, or being able to make a difference in the world.

Spirituality should not be equated with religion. Instead it’s all about having a sense of meaning in one’s life and a feeling of connectedness with other people and the universe. We bring our spiritual selves to work and much of our spiritual odyssey occurs within the context of the workplace. Because work is a central part of our modern lives, people are searching for a way to enrich their working lives with meaning.

People attach meanings to work beyond that of economic utility. They want to see a larger purpose in their daily toiling at work. The practical significance of meaning in life is revealed when phrased as, “what makes my life worth living and my work worth doing?”

Attitudes to work are changing whereby people are trying to integrate their spiritual selves with their work lives. Growing numbers of people are hungry to find meaning in their work and to give their lives a better balance. Especially, what the well-educated workforce wants more than anything else is meaningful employment with time to pursue other interests besides work. Extended education has brought with it rising expectations that one is entitled to personal needs and expectations being met in the workplace. Young people are beginning to claim the right to an interesting, meaningful and a fulfilling job.

In addition organisations are evolving from arenas of pure economic and social activity into places of spiritual engagement, a place for employees to find meaning, looking to the company’s leaders to answer their questions about meaning.

People tend to evaluate themselves according to what they accomplish in their work. If they see their job as hampering the achievement of their full potential, it becomes difficult for them to maintain a sense of purpose or satisfaction. Without a focus on aiding employees to find meaning in their work, every choice to improve job satisfaction is random and arbitrary.

Viktor Frankl, the Jewish psychiatrist who survived Nazzi concentration camps and author of the acclaimed ‘Man’s search for meaning’, argued that the essence of human motivation is a striving to find and realise meaning in one’s life.

Research supports Frankl’s views, confirming with overwhelming consistency that meaning is an important correlate of almost every aspect of mental health. In contrast, meaninglessness has been found to correlate with a lack of well-being and psychopathologies in a roughly linear sense. Research on meaning in the workplace confirms that meaning significantly correlates with positive work outcomes and attitudes, such as higher engagement, higher intrinsic motivation, willingness to take on tough challenges, yet experiencing more satisfaction.

Business people often experience their work, family life and their spiritual selves to be in separate compartments. This separation leaves them feeling dry, unfulfilled and unhappy. This is often experienced as a profound void or absence in people’s lives, or an existential vacuum. People spend too much of their time at work, or in work-related social activities, to compartmentalise their lives into separate work, family, religious and social domains. If personal or social transformation is to take place, it will most likely take place at work.

The concern for finding meaning in work becomes greater, leaders move into the role as spiritual guides in the search for meaning in the workplace. Helping employees to find more meaning in their work is simple and does not cost much – if anything at all.

For instance:

• Sit with every employee in your team and ensure they know and understand the importance of their job and the reason for doing it properly. The security guard who understands that she/he is the face of the organisation to customers will act differently and with meaning.
• Ensure that every person, across all levels, know and understand their contribution to the success and future of the team and the organisation. This is similar to the anecdotal story of the broom sweeper at NASA who claimed that his job was to put a person on the moon.
• Make sure that every employee understands how the organisation contributes to building a better society and a future for society – and that it is not just about the money
• Instil and embed spiritual values in your organisation, such as care, respect, integrity, dignity and generosity. This will enhance engagement and performance significantly.
• Embed a culture of self-transcendence in which the organisation and employees do not only take care of themselves, but also reach out to each other and the community to help and assist where there is a need.

But remember, these actions do require sincerity and take some effort; superficial attempts will quickly vaporise or become transparent, resulting in loss of credibility and reputation. On the other hand, honest attempts will be highly rewarded.

Leadership has a spiritual tone that we are not always aware of, yet cannot ignore. The task for leaders is on a much deeper level of spiritual interaction with subordinates than what is often anticipated and those in leadership have a duty to assist their employees on their journey to find and fulfil a higher life purpose through their work.

Mias de Klerk is a Professor in Human Capital Management and Leadership Development at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB).

Read Previous

Expatriate Guide for Dummies – employment rules and best practice

Read Next

How to manage Generation Z in your workplace