By Connie Xie
While conducting a study with students of MIT’s Sloan School of Business, Professor Christopher Michaelson asked students to answer three questions: first, what careers did they expect for themselves upon graduation; second, what careers did they deem more important for social good; and third, what careers would they most like to pursue in an ideal world. The students’ responses showed that there was practically no overlap between their answers to these three prompts, which begged Professor Michaelson’s question: “Why are you studying so hard and paying so much to reach an objective that in your mind is neither your dream nor something you think is especially responsible?” (Michaelson).
Research that precedes Professor Michaelson’s work is that of Andrea Veltman, who came up with four dimensions that are usually present in a meaningful career: sufficient utilization of an employee’s skills, connection between the job and other aspects of the employee’s life, connection to the employee’s values, and a relationship with the employee’s personal purposes and drive for contributing to society (Veltman). Given these parameters, it is hardly surprising that not all work can be considered meaningful, and that attempting to make certain work meaningful would require a compromise of resources or of efficiency (Veltman).
Indeed, taking steps such as examining employee satisfaction, promoting teamwork and engagement, etc. requires time and capital, but prove worthy investments in the long run. Career burnout, which is commonly understood to include physical and mental strain from working, but also encompasses a sense of lost identity and purpose on behalf of the employee, greatly reduces employee productivity. Job stress is known to cost businesses “$300 billion a year in health costs, absenteeism and poor performance” (“Financial Costs of Job Stress”). In more austere scenarios, losing an employee, i.e. to resignation, can cost “120-200% of the salary of the position affected” (“Financial Costs of Job Stress”). Thus, from the employer perspective, investing in making employees’ work experiences more purposeful is a negligible expense in light of the consequences of failing to do so.
From the standpoint of a new professional, meaningful work might seem an inscrutable concept — after all, the fulfillment that comes with it can only be felt after experiencing the job in question, not before. Still, to develop a mental outline of what work is meaningful, it may help to understand the nature of what is not meaningful. According to an MIT Management Review literature review, having no tangible proof of the positive impact of one’s exertions, being disconnected from personal values, being asked to do excessive “pointless” work while the manager or other employees are issued more “significant” work, and the like contribute readily to feelings of disillusionment. Understanding what each of these aspects and scenarios means on an individual level will likely prove helpful in developing goals and expectations for a future career.
To businesses and employees alike, actively cultivating and seeking meaningful work environments and experiences is an investment that requires time, resources, and introspection about both the nature of the firm and the nature of the individual, but these costs are dwarfed in light of monetary and personal returns.
“Financial Costs of Job Stress.” UMass Lowell, http://www.uml.edu/research/cph-new/worker/stress-at work/financial-costs.aspx.
Michaelson, Christopher. “The Importance of Meaningful Work.” MIT Sloan Management Review, 1 Jan. 2010, sloanreview.mit.edu/article/the-importance-of-meaningful-work/.
Reviewed by Russell Muirhead, Dartmouth College. “Meaningful Work.” Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, 29 Nov. 2018, ndpr.nd.edu/news/meaningful-work/.