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.
Job satisfaction is something we all strive for but by no means all attain. There are various reasons for us to slip into feelings of apathy around our work. We may feel that we are being overlooked and that our skillsets are not being put to good use; we may feel that we are overworked and burnt out or maybe overwhelmed with stress; perhaps a lack of proper work-life balance is impacting our relationship with our friends and family; maybe we don’t fit in with our colleagues or are not contributing as effectively as those around us; or perhaps we even feel that we followed the wrong career path altogether – that the rung of the ladder is less of the issue than the ladder itself. Dissatisfaction is likely to come to all workers at some point. Oftentimes it passes, proving itself to be no more than a tough project or bad day at the office. But if the problem is consistent and/or stifling, action may need to be taken. For those who don’t think the job itself is the problem so much as how they’re handling it, a potential solution is work crafting.
What is work crafting?
Tims et al. (2012)1 define crafting as “the changes employees may make to balance their job demands and job resources with their personal abilities and needs.” The ultimate aim of doing this is to inject work with greater meaning and make it more engaging2. Essentially, without changing our job in any tangible sense – title, deliverables etc. – we ‘craft’ a new, more personalised version of our existing role to make it one that we can better love and thrive in, one “where we still can satisfy and excel in our functions, but which is simultaneously more aligned with our strengths, motives, and passions.”3
Employers may be reading that and biting their nails, but fear not, job crafting is not a license for employees to entirely reconstruct their role, ignoring the aspects of their job they find tedious and unrewarding and replacing them with exclusively grand and shiny tasks that provoke feelings of fulfilment. While management of tasks does factor into work crafting, the more important aspect is based around meaning. As argued by Berg et al. (2008)4, “job crafting theory does not devalue the importance of job designs assigned by managers; it simply values the opportunities employees have to change them.”
Job crafting vs Job design
The CIPD define job design as, “the process of establishing employees’ roles and responsibilities and the systems and procedures that they should use or follow.”5 Its purpose revolves around optimising processes in the workplace to create value and maximise performance. So far, so similar to job crafting. The key difference between the two lies in who is doing the decision-making.
In job design, an employer will be setting boundaries and assigning tasks based on their best understanding of their employees, making a conscious effort to give them work that will reward them and suit their skillsets. In job crafting, it is employees taking the reins. Workers are proactive, and the approach places their wellbeing front and centre. Again, that may be ground that employers are nervous to cede, but job crafting has been linked to better performance, motivation, and employee engagement6.
The three key forms of job crafting
There are various (and varying) approaches to job crafting, but three approaches are most common.
- Task crafting
This is the aspect we have focused on so far, with employees taking a more hands-on approach to their workloads. That could refer to work location (opting to work from home or on a hybrid basis, for example), time management (choosing hours that better suit their life commitments or generally working outside of a traditional 9-5 timeframe), or the tasks themselves (adding or removing tasks from their workload).
The examples around location and working hours are increasingly uncontroversial, especially in the wake of the pandemic. It is the third (employees selecting which tasks they wish to take on) that is the most divisive. Though it should be noted that generally task crafting involves taking on additional tasks rather than removing others. For example, a chef may take it upon themselves to not just serve food but to create aesthetically pleasing plates that enhance a customer’s dining experience. Or a bus driver might decide to give helpful sightseeing advice to tourists along his route7. Potentially an employee working in an administrative capacity may wish to become more engaged with the business, so learn a new software or sales technique, or become more actively involved with clients.
- Relationship crafting
Relationship crafting, unsurprisingly, is all about relationships. Primarily, relationships in the workplace. Having poor interpersonal relationships with colleagues has been found to be a significant contributor to workplace stress8. Conversely, positive work relationships are shown to increase job satisfaction, as well as general mood. By taking a more enthusiastic approach to workplace relationships, whether in or out of office hours, employees are thought to become more engaged with the company and feel more fulfilled in their role.
- Cognitive crafting
Cognitive crafting is all about how we frame the work we do. By assigning meaning to tasks that were conceivably uninspiring or outright deflating before, we can reshape our outlook, instilling our work and lives with a greater sense of purpose, and thus fulfilment. For example, a maid reframing the idea of changing a hotel guest’s bedsheets from a chore to a way to improve someone else’s holiday. Or a customer service worker approaching their clients’ problems like they were a therapist, looking to genuinely make their life better. Framing work tasks in a more positive manner can make work a far more enriching experience, and, unsurprisingly, removing any self-made narratives that what we’re doing is pointless improves mood no end.
The overarching benefit of crafting is the autonomy it affords employees. By giving workers control over how they spend and approach their time, they are able to feel a sense of achievement that might otherwise be lacking. And achievement breeds motivation for more, not to mention the added confidence and sense of worth it affords. A study by Steelcase9 found that when people have greater control over their experiences in the workplace, they become more engaged, which naturally results in greater performance.
Tellingly, studies on the happiness of women in the workplace10 found that there was no difference in mood across participants who worked full-time, part-time or didn’t work at all. Instead, the correlation between the women who were happiest was that they were the ones able to choose their work hours and professions. People have no problem committing to hard work, so long as it’s of their own volition, or offering them a benefit in return, even or especially if that benefit is solely personal fulfilment. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Barbara Ehrenreich, in her book Nickel and Dimed11, found that workers who had little control over the schedules found it disempowering and disabling.
Work-life balance is oft-discussed, and understandably so. We want to be able to enjoy our lives outside of work. This is arguably more important (and harder) now than ever as the lines continue to blur between our homes and workplaces, and our personal and professional devices. Less discussed is how we imbue our work lives with value. A healthy work-life balance should not entail misery during work hours and blissful respite when free. Rather, we should take steps to ensure that our professional days are filled with rewarding moments, whether that be because we’re performing tasks we want to be performing, framing our actions in a healthy, self-loving way, or performing those tasks with people that make it all worthwhile.
Crafting, whether of the task, relationship, or cognitive variety, offers us a way to feel more engaged and fulfilled, to improve our performance, and to take strides towards achieving professional goals we want to conquer. Lost for meaning in your professional life? Give crafting a try.
1 Tims, M., Bakker, A., and Derks, D. (2012). Development and validation of the job crafting scale. J. Vocat. Behav. 80, 173–186. doi: 10.1016/j.jvb.2011.05.009
3 Wrzesniewski, A., Berg, J. M., & Dutton, J. E. (2010). Turn the job you have into the job you
want. Harvard Business Review, June, 114-117.
4 Berg, Justin M., et al. “What Is Job Crafting and Why Does It Matter.” Retrieved Form the Website of Positive Organizational Scholarship on April, vol. 15, 2008, p. 2011.
11 APA. Ehrenreich, B. (2010). Nickel and dimed. Granta Books.