Meaning and happiness at work: “One size fits all”?
Every human being is unique. That being said, we all often try to find THE recipe, THE common solution to a situation X, which is quite ironic given the endless complexity and variety that humans embody. In other words, as realistic as finding 2 identical snowflakes (good luck).
The concepts of meaning and happiness at work are not left out, and unfortunately for those who are looking for THE recipe here, the “one size fits all” does not apply. NO. We are all different, and that is what makes our collective strength. Yet, we all aspire to many common goals, including the fact that we all want to be inspired to do our work and to have an impact on others.
It’s well known. The meaning of work is a powerful vector of commitment and happiness at work. But how can it be a determining factor in the quest for happiness at work? Inspiring others or being inspired in a professional context is not an easy task. We hear a lot about meaning through a leader’s ability to motivate others through speeches, presentations, and presence; through a powerful mission and vision statement, and; through engaging organizational values. All of this is important… but is it sufficient?
How is meaning defined in the context of work?
Aaker (2012) définit le sens comme étant uAaker (2012) defines meaning as a sense of being part of something meaningful and important, and that an individual can achieve this when they actively contribute to the achievement of common and shared goals1.
Researchers (Pratt & Ashfort, 2003) have shown that meaning in a professional context has two (2) components2:
- The meaning that refers to the tasks and activities within a role, position, and function.
- The meaning that applies to the relationships an individual maintains in the workplace with superiors, co-workers, colleagues, and clients.
In his research, Morin (2006) claims that the meaning of work can be defined in three (3) ways: the meaning and value of the work in the eyes of an individual, the direction and orientation of the individual in his work and the effect of coherence between the individual and the work he performs, between his expectations, his values, and the actions he takes daily in the work environment3.
Figure 1. The three definitions of the meaning of work
In summary, the definitions presented point to four (4) important concepts in terms of meaning at work:
- Adherence to an organization’s mission and vision and alignment between personal and organizational values;
- The need to have clear goals and expectations;
- The importance of a healthy, authentic, transparent, and consistent leadership and management culture; and;
- Regular discussions of performance indicators (i.e., feedback/feedforward/appreciation/recognition).
However, it is important to keep in mind that, just like happiness at work, meaning at work is specific to each person. It reflects the way an individual perceives their role, their responsibilities, their colleagues, their superiors, and their values in their work and their organization. As such, this perception is likely to be influenced by internal and external stimuli that will have a significant impact on meaning at work.
Stimuli that give meaning to work
Keep in mind that “one size fits all” when it comes to meaning at work is unrealistic and unlikely. A global or collective approach to this issue can be developed, but it must always be accompanied by a more individual approach, particularly via leaders, managers, and supervisors. Those with the greatest potential on the job will not necessarily perform at their best if they are not driven by a keen sense of purpose.
That is why many organizations are taking an approach that goes beyond the collective approach to happiness at work; a more personalized approach that enhances the employee experience to differentiate themself from others. An approach that puts the human being at the heart of the process in order to activate the right levers to stimulate meaning at work.
In this regard, six (6) characteristics or stimuli contribute to giving meaning to work, including.
The degree of freedom an individual must make decisions and take actions in the course of their work. He or she must be able to exercise judgment, creativity, and initiative and be able to express opinions even if they differ from those of the organization. Trust and “macro-management” are essential components of autonomy.
The importance of developing an individual’s skills. Allowing an individual to develop, to improve their knowledge, to grow, and to thrive in their work.
Work must be done in an ethical, fair, and morally acceptable manner. Not breaking the rules of practice is paramount; but also, that which is socially acceptable.
Quality of relationships
The development of professional relationships must be central to the work environment. The complicity with colleagues, frequent interactions, and a positive work climate are necessary to give meaning to work.
Having the support, esteem, and respect of others is essential in the workplace. Recognizing an individual’s work should be done regularly and spontaneously. The level of recognition can vary, but the gesture/action of acknowledging the work done is necessary to give meaning to the work.
Are you in a leadership role in your organization?
Do you work with colleagues?
Do you work?
The next few lines are for you!
In practice, taking the time to stop and ask questions is essential; listening and understanding is fundamental; empathy and compassion are essential; and taking action is necessary.
Here are some questions that will allow you to validate your collaborators’, colleagues’, and even your own meaning and happiness at work:
- How are things at work?
- What’s going well; what’s not?
- What are you passionate about in your daily life? What is interesting and challenging?
- How do you perceive your role and responsibilities? Clarity? Level of impact? Level of importance?
- How is your work-life balance? Do you need anything in that regard?
Obviously, these questions allow you to obtain a lot of information but above all, to stimulate a discussion between two (2) people or simply a reflection with yourself. The important thing here is not to take over the discussion but to listen and understand on what the other person has to say. Take this opportunity to take the time to acknowledge what is being said, to stress the importance of the discussion and, most importantly, to follow up on the discussion.
You will quickly see that “One size… doesn’t fit all”… and that’s just fine!
 Aaker, Jennifer (2012). The Business Case for Happiness. Stanford Business School, p.3-24.
 Pratt, M. G., & Ashforth, B. E. (2003). Fostering Meaningfulness in Working and at Work. Dans K. S. Cameron, J. E. Dutton, & R. E. Quinn (Eds.), Positive Organizational Scholarship: Foundations of a New Discipline (pp. 309-327). San Francisco, CA: Berret-Koehler.
 Morin, Estelle (2006). Donner un sens au travail. HEC Montréal. Disponible au : http://docplayer.fr/docview/40/21773181/.