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Why finding meaning at work matters

September 28, 2020
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By Erica Pimentel

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How to cultivate meaningfulness at work during a global pandemic

Why do you work? Is it because you’ve found a job that provides you with a sense of fulfillment and purpose? Or are you part of the 30% of individuals who view the work they do as “just a job to get them by”?

Regardless of whether your work aligns with your personal mission, few of us can choose not to engage in some type of paid labour. Karl Marx proposed that the act of trading labour for a wage puts workers in a position to be exploited. My goal is not to debate the arguments of Marx or his neoliberal detractors. Rather, my objective is to argue that just because work is something that we have to do, does not mean that it has to be soul-crushing. Finding meaning is a fundamental human need, and this need is exacerbated by the coalition of challenges that surround us in the world today.

In this blog post, I will explain why meaning at work matters and, more importantly, how to find it during a global pandemic.

Finding Meaning at Work

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The idea of work as a source of meaning dates back to the Protestant Reformation with Martin Luther proposing that laypeople could experience work as a “calling”; a term which previously had been reserved for clergy. Luther promoted the idea that it was one’s duty to use their God-given gifts to bring value to the world through their labour. More recently, the notion of work as a calling (or at least as more than a job) has been applied in management research to explore the conditions under which individuals are able to draw deep personal satisfaction from their work. Researchers have looked at professions from zoo-keepers to accountants to explore what it is that makes individuals relate to work as more than just a way to earn a fee in exchange for their services.

The idea of relating to work as more than just a job is important right now because the global pandemic is wreaking havoc on the mental and emotional well-being of people around the world. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that in late June, 40% of American adults struggled with mental health or substance abuse. People are unable to balance their personal and professional commitments and feel persistently overwhelmed. One way to overcome this challenge is to think differently about where work fits into our lives, and how we can reposition our relationship to work in order to find meaning.

Finding Meaning During a Global Pandemic

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The question then becomes how to reposition work within one’s life. I’ve put together five suggestions that can act as a springboard to further reflection.

  1. Re-evaluate your work What is it that you love most about your job (or loved most about it before you moved to a virtual workplace)? Berg, Button and Wrzesniewski propose that employees redesign and reimagine their jobs to influence the meaningfulness of their work through a process called job crafting. Consider what you like most about your job and how these tasks can be prioritized in your routine. This doesn’t mean not doing your job - it simply means focusing on the parts of your job that you find most gratifying, like coaching others or mentoring, to balance out your day.
  2. Figure out what you can control and what you can’t One of the reasons people feel like work doesn’t have meaning is because they feel like they lack agency over their work life. Given that remote work has shaken up how things are done, it is time to think about what you can control and what you have to leave be. Does working remotely allow you to have flexibility in your schedule that provides better work-life balance? Can you choose to work on certain projects over others? One way to find meaning at work is to think clearly about where we have the power to invest our energy and how that aligns with our values.
  3. Find your purpose Finding meaning at work is hard to do if we don’t know what it is that we are working towards. Maybe you’ve lost your job or are simply so overwhelmed that getting up in the morning can feel like a challenge. Some research suggests that one trick is to imagine what your future could be like. Be bold and imagine many different realities. Then work backward to figure out what you can do today and in the days to come to get there.
  4. Maybe it’s time to do something else Once you’ve reflected on your purpose and how your current work fits into that, you may realize that remote work has made your job into something that no longer suits you. Or maybe you’ll find that the precautions your employer has put into place reveal a fundamental lack of concern for your health and wellbeing. As an example, the pandemic has caused some teachers to leave their profession altogether because they are unhappy with what they perceive to be a lack of concern for their welfare by education authorities. The pandemic provides an opportunity to reconsider which envisioned future you want to pursue – and start making plans for how to get there.

I believe that work can be meaningful – it’s a matter of finding an alignment between our tasks, values and priorities. I hope that pandemic will provide an opportunity to challenge the status quo and will allow employees to reconsider their relationship to their work.


About the author

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Erica Pimentel is a CPA and a doctoral candidate in Accountancy at the John Molson School of Business. Erica holds a B.Comm from McGill, an MBA from the John Molson School of Business and an LLM in Tax from York University. Prior to starting her PhD, she worked in public accounting.
Erica leverages her close proximity to practice to perform research on professional work and the business applications of blockchain technology. She is interested in how professionals create meaning through their work. Her doctoral research has been supported by scholarships from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), the Ministère de l'Éducation et de l'Enseignement supérieur du Québec, CPA Québec and Concordia University.


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