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Meaningful Work Changes Over Time – when did you last do a career health check?

If you are engaged in meaningful work the benefits are significant. It is proven to increase your job satisfaction and your career development. You will have less work stress and better health and well-being. It is also better for the organisation you work for. They benefit from higher engagement levels, less sick leave, and higher commitment levels to the organisation. Unsurprisingly, 98% of people agree that being in meaningful work is important according to Beaumont People. Further, in a report from Indeed, it was found that nearly 50% of people believe expectations around work happiness have increased. Given there are so many benefits to meaningful work, you’d think there would be more of us in it. One of the reasons it is hard to find meaningful work is that what makes work meaningful changes over time.

What the research tells us

The world-first research into meaningful work,  revealed some intriguing insights. There are four factors to meaningful work; 

(i)   the individual - your interests, abilities, goals, motivations, etc,

(ii)  the job – the type quality and quantity of your work, as well as how much it is modified to make it meaningful,

(iii)  the organisational - leadership, culture, policies, and practices, etc, and 

(iv) the societal – access to work and how much it aligns with your cultural norms.

Prior studies into meaningful work had exclusively concentrated on the current state of meaningful work for individuals, failing to consider an ideal state or desired future state. Whilst your core purpose and values may remain stable, many of the other factors may change for you as factors in your life change. What we fail to do as individuals is spend much time thinking deeply about what specifically has changed to understand what will make our work meaningful now.

Treat the underlying cause, not the symptom

Too often, when we are unhappy in our careers, we are quick to ‘treat the symptom’. This typically sees one of two reactions.

The first is a default to the organisational factor. You may decide that if you simply look for another position in a different organisation, either doing the same thing or perhaps at the next level up, then the role will be more meaningful.

The second default reaction is, instead, to look at the job factor – and this might mean a complete change of careers. If you love your organisation, you may stay within the company but make a sideways move, or sometimes even a downward move to start again in a different role altogether. Or you might leave and re-train entirely into a new field.

It is not to say that either of these reactions is necessarily the wrong one. Rather, taking them without investigating all of your meaningful work factors and whether they have changed, runs the risk of treating the symptom, not finding the underlying cause. You could potentially be jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Some people make the mistake of doing this time and again, and never quite understand why they don’t truly find the meaning they are looking for.

Instead, try this

Sometimes, to help think about how meaningful work has changed for you over time, it is useful to think about your first-ever paid job. Often in those roles, there were some aspects that stayed true to what we found meaningful (our values or purpose for example) and others that absolutely would not suit us as we have grown older. Thinking about your first job, and bearing in mind the four factors of meaningful work listed above, ask yourself the following questions:

What aspects of the job were meaningful?

What aspects of the job weren’t meaningful?

For the factors that were, are there any that are still meaningful for you today that are missing in your current role, and if so, how can you incorporate them?

Are there any aspects that aren’t meaningful, then or now, that you recognise you need to move away from?

In summary

When you feel that you might need to change jobs or careers, it is important to think deeply through the steps you take to do so. The quest for meaningful work is human and it is universal so don’t rush it. Recognise that unhappiness in your role may be an indication that your meaningful work factors have changed. Time taken to work through what that means for you will more likely see you continue your unique path to career fulfilment.

Nina Mapson Bone is a people strategist, consultant, and author of Meaningful Work: Unlock your unique path to career fulfilment. She is a highly sought-after speaker about people strategy, culture, and leadership.

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