In 1959, the world-renowned neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Emil Frankl wrote:

“The human quest for meaning is so strong that, even in the direst of circumstances, people seek out their purpose in life.”

Certainly, that quest for meaning extends to people who also seek meaningful work.

Writing for the MIT Sloan Management Review, Professor of Business and Management at University of Sussex (UK) Catherine Bailey and Senior Lecturer of Human Resources and Organizational Behavior at the Business School of the University of Greenwich (London) Adrian Madden surveyed several hundred workforce professionals to capture their unique attitudes about professional work. The insight that they gained from their research findings allowed them to separate work and workplace experiences into two diametrically opposed groups: meaningful work and meaningless work. Here are their findings:

5 Qualities of MEANINGFUL Work:

  1. Self-Transcendent. This is work that goes beyond one’s own needs and desires: According to Bailey and Madden, “people did not just talk about themselves when they talked about meaningful work; they talked about the impact or relevance that their work had for other individuals, groups, or the wider environment.”
  2. Poignant. This type of work is not always a positive experience; it is far richer and more challenging than pleasurable.
  3. Episodic. The meaningfulness in this type of work is not a constant, but occurs “at peak times that [were] generative of strong experiences.” Often, those who experience the episodic qualities of their work feel as if they are part of history.
  4. Reflective. The attributes of this kind of work are rarely experienced in real-time, but rather profoundly upon later reflection.
  5. Personal. The meaning of such work is often understood by people, not just in the context of the work performed, but also in the wider context of their personal life experiences.

7 Qualities of MEANINGLESS Work:

  1. Value-Disconnected. This kind of work often disengages people from their core values.
  2. Taken for Granted. Employees and contractors (including gig workers) feel undervalued and not appreciated for the outcomes of their labor.
  3. Pointless. The work performed doesn’t line up with stated corporate goals or objectives.
  4. Mistreated. Workers identify meaninglessness in the mistreatment that they feel from superiors, peers, clients, etc.
  5. Overridden. The worker’s well-developed skill, training, experience, and judgments are capriciously blocked by ambitious and self-centered others in the workplace.
  6. Relationship-Detached. Workers become disengaged from their supportive workplace relationships; they are rendered isolated, marginalized, and ostracized by management.
  7. Harmful or Toxic. People are placed at risk of physical and/or emotional trauma.

How many of these meaningful or meaningless attributes mirror your own work experience? Do the ones in your life that align to meaningless work outnumber the meaningful ones? If so, recognizing their presence in your work experience early on will help to empower you along the journey to doing meaningful work. As we explore the quest for meaningful work more deeply, we will provide you with additional insight to make such a transition positive and enduringly successful.

IMAGE CREDITS: Dream and Work Motivation, iStockPhoto.