I’m celebrating the 100th post I’ve published with this look at the meaning of work.
It’s a challenging task because what we call work has changed dramatically in the last generation. Just as when the factory was born, the technological revolution and globalization of the last thirty years is transforming work and its meaning.
Work is still essentially defined as “doing.” We still look for external results to define the success of our work. While the concept of intrinsic reward is acknowledged as a useful contributing component for the final work product, it still isn’t considered as valuable in and of itself. This varies if we’re self employed but the measurement of the value of our work is still largely defined by the marketplace.
Hundreds of millions of us still toil at hard labor, often without rights, benefits, decent working conditions and fair pay. How do these workers, often working in the shadows, derive “meaning” from their work?
Tragically, too many workers in the 21st century are laboring in 19th century conditions. In 2008, in the largest immigration raid in U.S. history, officials swept into a meatpacking plant in Iowa and arrested three hundred and eighty-nine workers. Fifty seven children, as young as thirteen were among those found working at the plant. Often working seventeen hour shifts in close quarters with sharp knives, the workers were earning $5 – $6 an hour.
In a more recent spotlight on worker abuse, the Oscar nominated film, The Help, told the story of the plight of domestic workers in the pre-Civil Rights era of the American South. While many facets of the interwoven stories told in The Help are moving and inspiring, criticism of the film’s omission of the rapes and sexual abuse many female domestics endured is justified.
Before we comfort ourselves with thinking, “Thank goodness those days are over,” the often dangerous conditions that many hotel maids work under today got major media attention in 2011 when former IMF chief, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was accused (charges were later dropped) of sexually assaulting a hotel maid in his room.
Speaking to the media after the Strauss-Kahn incident, Priscilla Gonzalez, director of the advocacy group, Domestic Workers United said, “It’s absolutely no surprise that this happened. Being a historically disenfranchised and devalued, invisible kind of work, people who work in this industry do face a lot of forms of abuse and exploitation, sexual abuse and harassment. The reality is that the women who do this work are not seen; they’re not recognized. For every woman that comes forward with a complaint, there are hundreds who don’t.”
With legislation passed in 2010, New York is the only state in the U.S. (a CA version is now pending) that protects the rights of domestic workers, including nannies, housekeepers and caregivers for the elderly (the fastest growing work segment). And after 60 years of advocacy, the International Labour Organization (ILO) adopted a global convention outlining the fundamental rights of domestic workers, which include 7.5 million mostly women worldwide. It’s widely assumed that the U.S. will never ratify this because most U.S. labor laws are regulated by the states. This means that the 2.5 million domestic workers in the other 48 states face a long struggle to earn the most basic protections for their safety and economic well-being.
What Does Meaning from Work Mean?
“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”
Studs Terkel, author of the classic book, Working
Expecting meaning from work within the context of the desperate working conditions outlined above seems frivolous, at best, but we know that the search for meaning is as old as the human story.
Writing about work, Michael Steger, Director of the Laboratory for the Study of Meaning and Quality of Life says, “Few other avenues offer as much promise for accomplishing valued outcomes as creating meaning in work – both in terms of individual flourishing, citizenship, commitment, and engagement in terms of long-term, sustainable innovation, culture maintenance and permanency in organizations.”
Dr. Steger’s cogent case for the importance of the meaning of work holds powerful implications for personal and institutional responsibilities to “make meaning.” Institutions, at the very least, must guarantee safe and decent work conditions with economic parity for workers in the 21st century. But that’s not enough.
In his Harvard Business Review article, Create a Meaningful Life through Meaningful Work, author Umair Haque writes, “Maybe the real depression we’ve got to contend with isn’t merely one of how much economic output we’re generating – but what we’re putting out there and why. Call it a depression of human potential, a tale of human insignificance being willfully squandered.”
Recent studies from research at McKinsey conclude that providing meaningful work to employees was the most important contributing factor to a high level of engagement. In her book, The Progress Principle, author Teresa Amabile reports that of all the events that can deeply engage people in their work, the single most important factor was meaningful work.
Well practiced in “disengagement,” leaders and organizations must learn which actions and conditions are meaning killers and which bring energy and engagement to life. According to Ms. Amabile, “Beyond affecting the well-being of employees, research shows that the “inner work life” affects the bottom line. People are more creative, productive, committed and collegial in their jobs when they have positive inner work lives. But it’s not just any sort of progress in work that matters. The first and fundamental requirement is that work be meaningful to the people doing it.”
There’s growing agreement about the types of ways leaders and workers at any level can create the conditions that inspire meaningful experience within the workplace:
While our definitions of what constitutes “meaningful work” may be in a state of flux, our search for meaning continues. While we may not love our work or work for love there should be nothing that dampens our desire and drive for meaning. Meaning makes our life worthwhile. It is the great motivator.
Many of us have lowered the bar for our own meaning. Too often we settle for a tasks-only orientation to our work, barely stopping to consider the why of what we do. Finding meaning in our work requires that we regularly step back and connect what we value with what we do. This is true in any endeavor, but especially important in our work.
Visioning the brave new world of meaning at work, author & poet David Whyte writes in his book, Crossing the Unknown Sea, “Every organization attempting to wake up to this newly youthful world is now asking for qualities from its people that are touchstones of their humanity. In order to get a real conversation with the world you have to drop the artificial language, drop the politics and drop an environment based on fear and hiding. People must be encouraged not only to know their craft, their products, their work and the people they serve, but to know a little of themselves. In order to respond to the world of wants, they must know something of what they want and they do not want.”
Making meaning is work – but the possibilities are life-giving.
Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.
Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants
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