Theo Wehner about «work and meaning»


A job in itself is neither meaningful nor meaningless.


At work

As an industrial and organizational psychologist, I find it interesting to note that job satisfaction has been a theme for the past fifty years while at the same time work-related stress has also been a topic of discussion. I’m especially interested in the new terms that emerge in these discussions. One that’s new to the discussion but old as a cultural issue is the relationship between work and meaning. 

I recall a time when people said, «Yes, I’m satisfied with my job but meaning – that’s something that belongs on another level entirely. That’s not necessarily what I’m looking for from my job.»

These were industrial workers and generating meaning simply didn’t apply. Now, in the past five years or so, more and more people say they would willing sacrifice money or status in favor of meaningful work.

And that’s new: A good job today is one that on the one hand must be understandable, that is, I have to understand what I do. The second major requirement is that my work has to something I can indeed grasp, something I can do well. Further, it has to make sense to me; it must have meaning. 


Volunteer workers at the beach

That really is something new in the world of gainful employment. Where I have encountered this mentality is among volunteer workers – people who do things to help others or to support the environment. Within the first few minutes of an interview these people almost always say, «Yes, what I do here – I can’t really explain it – is meaningful to me, it corresponds to my values. I might even find more meaning here than in what I do for a living.»

We wanted to examine this relationship more closely so we studied one occupational group in particular, professional firefighters, and compared them to another group—volunteer firefighters. We learned that firefighters who served voluntarily found their work more meaningful than the pros who were paid a living wage for their efforts. That suggests that professionalization actually undercuts the ability of a job to generate meaning.


«When is work really useful, or which job has meaning?»

This relationship can be observed in many other professions and we need to make an effort to learn from those who work as volunteers: How do they manage to generate meaning in their work? How can we transfer these lessons to jobs in the service sector, in health care and also in industry so that they also allow their workers to generate real meaning in their work?

As an industrial psychologist I’m often asked, «When is work really useful, or which job has meaning?» To that I can only reply: A job in itself is neither meaningful nor meaningless.


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