Finding Purpose and Meaning in your Work

25 July 2022

What is work and why do it?

At the beginning of humankind as we know it, work in its purest form was about survival. We worked to provide for our basic human needs – we hunted and gathered for food; we built for shelter. Our reasons for working have changed over time. During the Roman Empire, work was deemed a lowly pursuit, reserved for the lower classes, through to the 18th century, sometimes referred to as ‘The Age of Enlightenment’ where work, especially artisanship, became a marker of virtue.

The largest proportion of Australian workers work between 20-44 hours per week, which is a reasonable portion of our weekly life, so as the nature of our work and the reasons for doing it continue to evolve, we can ask ourselves why we choose the work that we do and what does that give us?  

The importance of purpose and how to find it?

Purpose is a belief that your life matters and that you make a difference. It is a core pillar of wellbeing. It is a sense of being guided by meaningful values and goals. Purpose can be related to families or parenting, career, religion, activism, artistic pursuits, or other contributions to community. Looking for meaning is an intrinsic part of being human. It can strengthen our sense of self and identity.

3 Levels of purpose in your work:

Individual: Person to person; wanting to make a direct impact on someone’s life. An example might be doctor to patient, or a direct working relationship with customer or client.

Organizational: Wanting to make sustainable impact. The focus is on building teams, organizations, and institutions. Larger scope.

Societal: The impact here is larger than organizations. This is about affecting change in an industry.

How to find a job you love? + How to love the job you have?

Know your values. Aligning work with your values will help you achieve work satisfaction. Here are 9 values, which all include ways of being and key important beliefs.

Achievement: ambition; success; influence

Conservation: awareness; protection

Caring: helpful; loyal; loving

Freedom: learning; exploring; independence

Respect: self-respect; being capable

Tradition: respectful; humble; moderate

Enjoyment: variety; excitement; adventure

Stability: order: belonging; responsible

Equality + Justice: fairness; harmony; inclusion

You are more likely to flourish in work that suits your values. If freedom is important to you, a job that allows you independence and an opportunity to learn and explore at your own pace might be suitable. A likely unsuitable position might be one that lacks independence and autonomy.

Workplace wellbeing

The wellbeing of people in the workplace needs to be viewed in terms of not only their physical and mental health which should consider the interchange between home and work. Encouraging healthy lifestyles and improved personal resilience is becoming popular in workplace cultures.

Having a workplace that fosters creativity, support and inclusion helps employees have a sense of belonging and purpose at work. Having employee support services available (Employee Assistance Programs) and removing the stigma around access to these can help to support employees through challenging times but also offers an opportunity to strengthen their emotional intelligence and personal growth.

What happens when we stay in a job that lacks meaning?

‘Boreout’ is a term to describe work-related chronic boredom. It refers to work that does not provide adequate challenges, is repetitive or lacks meaning or purpose. Your work may not offer opportunities for social interaction, which might leave you feeling disconnected from work and colleagues. Being chronically bored at work can have damaging effects on our mental and physical wellbeing.

Boreout it is the opposite of its workplace counterpart, burnout. Burnout happens when you’re mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted - work, study, hobbies or relationships that you used to love don’t interest you anymore. You might lose motivation and feel helpless, drained and cynical. You could be struggling to meet the demands of work and study. The effect that boreout has on us is much the same. Studies have shown that as well as the immediate effects of elevated levels of staff turnover, chronic boredom at work can lead to stress, anxiety, and depression. These in turn can foster poor sleep habits and physical health.

Tips for keeping purpose front of mind at work:

  • Seek out meaning in small tasks. Hardly anyone likes all aspects of their job, but we can try to be conscious of how more mundane tasks contribute to the whole of the work that we do.
  • Build relationships- not just with likeminded colleagues, but the people around us who challenge us or can teach us something new. People can experience their work as more meaningful when it matters to others as well as themselves.
  • Look outside of work for meaning and fulfillment- identify the purpose and value in your home life
  • Know your values- be conscious about them and use them to help you make decisions
  • Talk to someone about it- a work colleague or a good friend
  • Create a sense of control by offering suggestions or helping a colleague who is struggling with work when you can
  • Remember that feeling purposeful at work can be episodic
  • Do not confuse work with meaning or self-identity

Useful links:

Written by Leila Rahimtulla.