It’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you. Batman said it so it must be true. (Technically it was said to him first then made a running motif of the film’s core theme, but we may be splitting hairs.)
What we do does define us. Look no further than the first question directed your way by any small talk specialist at a party: what do you do? The question has a more pronounced meaning than simply what is your career. It’s designed to get a sense of what that profession says about you – your class, education, status, salary.
The most popular surname in Germany and Switzerland is Müller, meaning miller. In Slovakia, it’s Varga, the word for cobbler. In the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US, it’s Smith, due to the word’s attachment to a variety of once common trades such as blacksmith and locksmith . Your work, then, used to be your literal identity.
In purely nominative terms, that has changed. We do not live amongst Wayne Footballer, Elon Disruptor or Donald Moron. But in terms of social function, our profession is still the definitive modus of identification, at least on first glance. In today’s world, unlike in Batman’s, our job is both what we do and indicative of who we are underneath.
Work as identity
The vast majority of people spend the bulk of their waking hours at work. That was true pre-pandemic when office work practices were the norm. Home and hybrid working have changed things somewhat. There is more flexibility to work schedules, but that does not detract from the amount of our time given to work. In fact, the ability to do our jobs from home has in many cases seen work spill over into what was once free time. Anne Wilson, a professor of psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, terms the psychological state that accompanies investing a disproportionate amount of time and energy to work as “enmeshment” .
Wilson found that workers with greater autonomy over their schedule – such as those in high-powered executive positions, lawyers, entrepreneurs and academics – were most affected by enmeshment. However, with greater autonomy over scheduling and certainly location now afforded to the many workers across the world, enmeshment’s prevalence is only growing.
What do you mean?
Given the prominent role our career plays in how we either identify ourselves or are identified by others, it makes sense that we want our work to provide meaning. After all, if work takes up most of your time and is seen as a solid representative indicator of who you are, then having a meaningful job surely necessitates that you also lead a meaningful life.
Meaning has the highest impact on whether an employee chooses to stay at their job or move on . In fact, employees who derive meaning from their work are more than three times as likely to stay with their organisations . On top of that, employees who consider their work to have meaning report 1.7 times higher job satisfaction and are 1.4 times more engaged with their work . Meaning, it seems safe to say then, is good.
And yet a 2017 report from Gallup found that just 13% of the world’s workforce felt “engaged” at work . Gallup defines unengaged workers as those who are “checked out” from their work, distinguishing between unengaged workers and those who are actively disengaged. This latter group, “act out on their unhappiness, take up more of their managers’ time and undermine what their co-workers accomplish” .
According to a separate Gallup study from 2013, actively disengaged workers cost US companies a whopping $450 billion to $550 billion per year . In other words, for any cynical employers reading this who think their workers’ pursuit of meaning is nothing more than a tiresome display of existential narcissism that falls outside their professional remit, think again. Meaning is money. Meaning is business. And your staff’s search for meaning is your business.
A map to meaning
Positive Psychology lays out the most prominent job satisfaction theories. There’s Edwin Locke’s range of affect theory, predicated on the importance of meeting expectations. If employee A wants a team-oriented work culture, for example, offering one will provide them job satisfaction, and vice versa.
Then there is the dispositional approach, which posits that while our job satisfaction may fluctuate slightly according to our specific workplace circumstances, more important than whatever workplace culture we’re currently part of is our natural disposition. People with high self-esteem, high levels of self-efficacy, and/or low levels of neuroticism are more likely to be satisfied in their job than those of the opposite disposition, irrespective of whether the job caters to their specific needs or not.
The Job Characteristics Model argues that workplace satisfaction is contingent on factors such as skill variety, task significance, autonomy and feedback. While Equity theory posits that satisfaction depends on a trade-off between input and output. The level or hard work required, enthusiasm for the job and support of or for colleagues is being constantly evaluated against the financial compensation, feedback from higher-ups and job security the role offers, for example.
No theory is fully complete but all offer windows into what satisfaction supposedly looks like – with a great deal of crossover. Essentially a job that does all of or some of the following will prove satisfying: meets employee needs, offers work that is appropriately challenging, gives staff a decent level of control, provides a positive atmosphere (generally best obtained through co-worker collaboration and feedback from senior figures.). None of that, we’re sure you’ll agree, is groundbreaking information. As solutions, they’re easily identified, but harder to put into practice.
A practice often associated with job satisfaction is that of job crafting. For a deep dive on what crafting entails, read our article on the subject here. In short, it involves redefining the way you work, adjusting your role so that it better aligns with your specific skill sets. Sculpting a more personalised version of your position helps you – and in turn, the business – thrive, while simultaneously helping you derive meaning as you’re less likely to feel that your unique strengths are going to waste.
In accordance with the pursuit of meaning, psychologists Claudia Harzer and Willibald Ruch acknowledged the significance of finding a “calling” . While many professionals may not end up working in the sphere of what they consider to be their calling, through crafting they can help bring their would-be calling to their existing role.
Another tangible step one can take to ensure they obtain a sense of meaning from their work is to prioritise relationships. Aaron Hurst, founder of Imperative and the Taproot Foundation and the author of The Purpose Economy, notes that his 20 years of research into the subject of workplace fulfilment found relationships to be, “the leading driver of meaning and fulfilment at work. If you lack relationships, it’s almost impossible to be fulfilled at work or life in general” .
Hurst’s definition of meaningful work revolves around three core questions. Do you feel like: (a) You’re making an impact that matters? (b) You have meaningful relationships? (c) You’re growing? If the answer to all three is yes, meaning will surely follow.
Of course, we all ascribe meaning to different priorities based on our outlook, upbringing, and social and fiscal circumstances, amongst other factors. As Douglas Lepisto and Camille Pradies describe in their 2013 book Purpose and Meaning in the Workplace, some people “may derive meaning not from the job itself, but from the fact that it allows them to provide for their families and pursue non-work activities that they enjoy” .
As noted earlier, some professions feel less like work and more like a calling. Researchers have found that those in jobs they consider their calling are amongst the most content . One of the examples they give is that of zookeepers, noting that “though more than eight in 10 zookeepers have college degrees, their average annual income is less than $25,000.” On top of that, “there’s little room for advancement and zookeepers tend not to be held in high regard” . Despite the relatively limited fiscal reward and few opportunities for growth, job satisfaction among zookeepers is strikingly high. That’s because many of them are doing a job that they deem to be their purpose.
Not only that, but to follow on from Hurst’s point regarding relationships, zookeepers were found to also feel that their co-workers experienced the same motivation and sense of duty they did, helping them form closer bonds. “It’s not just that you do the same work, but you’re the same kind of people,” explains Stuart Bunderson, PhD, a professor of organisational behaviour at the Olin Business School at Washington University. “It gives you a connection to a community” .
We’ve already looked at the dispositional theory around job satisfaction, which contends that our natural outlook has more bearing on our sense of purpose or satisfaction than the scope of the role itself. But we don’t all need to be shiny, happy people (as R.E.M. would put it) to find meaning in our work.
Michael G. Pratt, PhD, a professor of management and organisation at Boston College, demonstrates the variables of approaches we can adopt by relaying a tale of three bricklayers hard at work.
When asked what they’re doing, the first bricklayer responds, “I’m putting one brick on top of another.” The second replies, “I’m making six pence an hour.” And the third says, “I’m building a cathedral — a house of God.” 
“All of them have created meaning out of what they’ve done,” Pratt says, “but the last person could say what he’s done is meaningful. Meaningfulness is about the why, not just about what” . Perhaps that’s why a 2013 Gallup report found that “employees with college degrees are less likely than those with less education to report being engaged in their work — even though a college degree leads to higher lifetime earnings, on average” . They’re earning more money, sure. But they’re not scratching that vocational itch.
We’ve already written about the professional benefits associated with adopting a positive mindset here. A notable finding is the way that our approaches – both positive and negative – can land us in a feedback loop of sorts. A 2021 study in the European Journal of Personality investigating the relationship between self-esteem and work experiences found that, “The overall reciprocal pattern between work experiences and self-esteem is in line with the corresponsive principle of neo-socioanalytic theory, stating that life experiences deepen those personality characteristics that have led to the experiences in the first place” .
Put more simply:
an individual with high self-esteem tends to experience more job satisfaction, and experiencing job satisfaction positively affects the individual’s self-esteem. Thus, the reciprocal effects imply a positive feedback loop for people with high self-esteem and favorable work experiences and, at the same time, a vicious circle for people with low self-esteem and unfavorable work experiences. 
In your hands
A 2018 PwC/CECP study found that a remarkable 96% of employees believe that achieving fulfilment at work is possible, with 70% saying they’d consider leaving their current role for a more fulfilling one . One in three even said they’d take a pay cut if necessary. Meanwhile 82% considered deriving meaning from work to be primarily their own responsibility, with 42% saying that they were their own greatest barrier to finding fulfilment at work .
There’s no one size fits all solution for finding meaning at work, but adopting a positive approach, building genuine workplace relationships, chasing your “calling”, or crafting your existing role so that it better aligns with your unique strengths and interests are all techniques worth exploring.