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Katariina Rönnqvist

Finding meaningful work

Working puts food on the table – but what else can it offer?

According to post-doctoral researcher Frank Martela we have reached a cultural saturation point in Finland. It is no longer enough that work produces material wealth and a livelihood. Many people can already afford to think about what else work could provide besides material gains.

– When a person starts thinking about this, we are talking about the meaningfulness of work, Martela says.

Martela has studied topics such as motivation and the building blocks of a good life. He believes that humans have a basic need to experience their life as meaningful. Work significantly affects this experience as we spend such a large portion of our time at work.

According to Martela, problems arise when there is a mismatch between the salary level and the meaningfulness of the work.

– Even though a person’s job is perfectly fine in material terms, it might lead to a crisis if the person does not feel that their work is meaningful. On the other hand, the work of a practical nurse is very meaningful, for example, but it is among the lowest paid professions.

It is a balancing act between material and mental wealth.

What kind of work is meaningful?

One does not have to save lives for a living to experience one’s work as meaningful. However, Martela identifies two factors that a meaningful job must have. Firstly, the work must produce something good for other people and the world. Secondly, the work must allow one to express oneself and do something that is characteristic of them.

Organisational psychologist and Executive Director of Meaningful Work Finland Jaakko Sahimaa agrees. An individual feels that their work is meaningful when the work aligns with their values, allows them to utilise their own expertise and its results have a positive impact on the surrounding world. Sahimaa also thinks that in addition to the individual perspective, we should also analyse meaningfulness more broadly.

– An employee may feel that they are only a small and insignificant part of a large machine even if their contribution has been tremendously important for the machine’s operation. Someone else might feel that their work is hugely meaningful while in reality it produces very little for the common good, Sahimaa says.

In addition to the individual level, Sahimaa says we should also analyse the meaningfulness of work from the perspectives of the team, the organisation, the society and the global world. On the team level we are talking about shared goals and responsibilities. The organisational level concerns the organisation’s mission and reason for existing while questions of ethics and accountability come in to play on the global level.

According to Sahimaa, meaningfulness is often created in relation to others.

– Naturally, every individual has their own motivating factors, but I would also advise teams and organisations to come together and think about these issues. What does the team consider important, what is the significance of the company for this world? What are we striving for? And why is it meaningful?

Why are we talking about this right now?

According to Sahimaa, the shared Finnish culture is crumbling and as a result meaningfulness has been discussed more and more after the turn of the millennium.

– For a long time we had a shared story: home, religion and the fatherland. After the Second World War, it was the rebuilding effort that brought meaning to people’s lives. Now that the country is back on its feet, a vacuum has formed. What are we striving for now?

Sahimaa thinks that in this age everyone must find their own direction in life. Ready-made values no longer exist, or at least they do not hold the same status as before. One way is to channel one’s yearning for meaning into one’s work.

– Many Finns have become affluent enough so that increasing their material wealth no longer increases their well-being. That is why we must seek new goals. We are balancing between our struggle for survival and meaninglessness. We need new kinds of goals and a direction that takes us into the future.

Is the management awake?

Millennials are another reason why meaningfulness is such a prominent topic in today’s world. When compared to previous generations, those born in the 80s and 90s have very different conceptions and expectations regarding working life.

–  Young adults are socially aware. They want to know what the end goal of the work is and what the work has an impact on. Just earning monthly salary is no longer something that they are satisfied with, Sahimaa says.

He states that it is crucial to understand these expectations and needs in working life.

– When recruiting experts, being able to define the company’s purpose is a trump card. If the company is unable to do this, the experts are sure to find more meaningful work elsewhere.

According to Sahimaa, the experience of meaningfulness also extends to the hard business world. An internally motivated employee is significantly more effective and productive than an employee who does not find their work meaningful.

If management wishes to sharpen up, they can learn to lead the meaningfulness of the work. According to Sahimaa, this does not require any magic tricks. It is enough to ensure that the basics – leadership and communication – are in order. There is reason to think about how human beings are seen at the organisation: are employees merely seen as a resource or as spontaneous creatures who wish to perform well at their job.

– It is important for a supervisor to recognise what motivates an employee. It is desirable that the goals of the individual align with the goals of the organisation.

He relates an example he heard from an ice cream factory. A woman who had worked at the factory for a long time was transferred from the ice lolly production line to the ice cream cone production line. As a result, the woman began to rebel.

– The management were baffled by the reaction until it was revealed that the ice lolly in question was the favourite ice cream of the employee’s children. The mother had worked a long career as the maker of her children’s favourite ice cream – that was her motivating factor.

Work is not all there is

One future scenario is one where fewer and fewer people have a traditional salaried position. According to Frank Martela we should begin to think about how we will be creating the experience of meaningfulness in the future.

– It is possible that in the future a significant portion of Finns will be left without a salaried job. If this is the case, we must solve the question of where these people can find those experiences of meaningfulness that we have grown accustomed to finding through work. If everyone cannot be placed in meaningful salaried employment, the experience of meaningfulness must be looked for in other areas of life: volunteering, family or hobbies, Martela says.

Jaakko Sahimaa lists a number of research results that state that a person who feels that their work is meaningful has a higher level of well-being and is more effective, committed and more eager to help out a colleague than a person who does not. Those who experience meaningfulness also live longer and are healthier in general.

– It’s great if one’s work and passion are one and the same. However, it is also crucial to accept that for others work can be just work: its purpose is to secure a livelihood and the meaningful things are perhaps found outside of work.

Sahimaa notes that Finnish society can even be too work-oriented in certain aspects. He refers to psychiatrist Viktor Frankl who stated that the meaning of life is built along three paths: action, experience and attitude. In this model, action and work form only a part of life.

Fine-tune your work to be more meaningful

If you are tired of your job, you should not start hunting for a new one right away.

  1. Set a deadline for yourself six months from now, for example. During that time, try to make the required changes in your current job. See how it goes. Once the deadline arrives, ask yourself again: is changing jobs the right decision? It is draining to constantly argue with yourself about the matter.
  2. Tune the content of the job and your working methods. Are you utilising your expertise? Do you get to participate in projects with a beginning and an end? Do you know why you are doing the work you are doing and how it is impacting the world?
  3. Does your job achieve the right balance between independent tasks and teamwork? Ask for feedback and develop your expertise.

These tips were provided by Jaakko Sahimaa. 

What do TEK's studies say?

  • Some three out of four employed TEK members feel that their work is quite or very meaningful.
  • For employed TEK members, the most important aspect of work was that it is interesting. This was followed by the opportunity to develop in one’s work and to influence the content of the work.
  • Students of technology also found the most important aspects of working life to be that the work is interesting and allows one to develop their expertise.

Sources: TEK’s Labour Market Survey 2016, Professional Development Survey 2016, TEK’s Student Survey 2015