Autonomy adds meaning


We must see to it that professionals see their work as meaningful

volunteer work

As an industrial and organizational psychologist, I want to say something about the problem area – as we must characterize it today – of meaningful work.

In our study we saw that different levels of meaning were generated for volunteer firefighters and paid professionals. The volunteers found greater meaning in their unpaid work than did the paid professionals.

Here we have to ask, why does one group more positive than the other? The volunteer firefighters value their high degree of autonomy. They can’t say when a fire will break out but they can decide if they are going to fight it; they alone control their own time. 

Professional firefighters have very different responsibilities. Their autonomy is limited by organizational and institutional demands. There are procedures to be followed. And they also have obligations to the volunteer firefighters. They are too integrated into the organization to think that the job should affirm their personal value system. 

The lesson for society is clear: We must see to it that precisely these people – the professionals – the service providers, knowledge workers and industrial workers – see their work as meaningful. The idea that meaningful activities only belong to time off, not to the workday, finds little traction with young people today. Meaning must be present in all areas of life, most especially in the work we do.

Autonomy is what volunteer workers enjoy to a high degree

volunteer worker

In addition, something an interviewee said about volunteer work has long stayed with me. Asked what to say to persuade someone to take up volunteer work, to make it sound really attractive, the reply was, «You know, if I was paid to do what I’m doing here I wouldn’t do it.» That’s the exact contradiction I was hoping to show above. If this person were to be paid for the work, very different benchmarking obviously would apply. Other values and standards would prevail, and other expectations would dominate, which, as a volunteer, the person might chose to accept or not. 

This sovereignty, this autonomy, is what volunteer workers enjoy to a high degree, and increasingly that’s what we want in the working world, so that our jobs also generate real meaning.   

«If I was paid to do what I’m doing here I wouldn’t do it.»

a volonteer
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