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“Why am I here?”: Rekindling Meaning & Work

A day without pleasure is a day lost.

Photo Credit: Christin Mey

What if “Commitment to Employee Well-being” was not a pretty headline in company brochures but at the strategic core of businesses? What if well-being initiatives weren’t initiatives but principles? What if they weren’t met by cynicism, scepticism and suspicion but instead became the foundation of our choices? In this article, I consider what communal values our work environments would need for people to actually regret not having spent more time at work. 

What if it wasn’t about performance? 

When championing employee well-being, it’s easy to go down the rabbit hole of increased performance. Yes, there is data that supports investing in the former to benefit the latter. But I wonder, is that even the point? In terms of sustainability, both environmentally as well as individually, is this desirable? Do we really need more productivity? 

Imagine we agreed that productivity is high enough as it is and started chasing more meaning within our work instead. If work stopped being about more, it could perhaps become about feeling happier during it. They say it is not about width of life, it’s about breadth of life. I dare to argue that the same is true for our work lives, if you even want to go so far to make a distinction between the two. What if we worked less hours but with more intention? What if we produced less but with more enjoyment? 

Gen Z has been quite busy asking itself these kinds of questions. This may be one of the reasons why they seem somewhat inconvenient to employ. Not only do they ask awkward questions, they also demand more flexible work hours, are ready to trade in money for free time and don’t care about fancy titles but roles that feel meaningful to them. 

So, let’s imagine this world where businesses made well-being central to their activities as they realise that their workforce will simply no longer accept anything else. What aspects of employee well-being would be most relevant to focus on?

In preparation for my PhD research proposal, I thumbed through 1,330 academic articles in order to get an idea of what well-being at work was all about. One topic stood out to me in particular. It can be recapitulated as “Meaningful Work”. This research string is concerned with helping employees answer the question “Why am I here?” and come up with a different answer than: “It looks good on my CV”.  

The question “Why am I here?” can lead us to more meaningful work. 

According to Lips-Wiersma and Morris, “when something is meaningful, it helps to answer the question: Why am I here?”. They describe meaningful work to be grounded in experiencing unity with and being of service to others as well as developing and becoming oneself by expressing oneself through work. This description makes work sound almost like a spiritual practice. Come to think of it, maybe that is the underlying reason why work can also be referred to as pursuing one’s calling, infusing work with a sense of awe and enlightenment.  

What becomes evident from this research into meaningful work is how much it depends on one thing: thriving work relationships. This might give us a further indication as to where some meaning has gotten lost in our society and where we can look to re-establish it. Thereby creating an environment where people don’t feel that they have to spend more time at work to keep up, but are eager to. 

As it has become common in offices across the Western world to swap compassion for professionalism, I’ve decided to venture outside this realm and gather some inspiration on well-being at work from more far-flung places.

How do other societies create meaningful work? 

In the book “Indigenous Sustainable Wisdom: First Nation Know-how for Global Flourishing”, Jon Young, amongst others, has looked at what we can learn from indigenous communities that have never detached themselves from their loved ones in order to work but instead love the ones they work with. It turns out that the (work) relationships of well-functioning indigenous tribes are shaped by acutely similar characteristics: 

1.) They put emphasis on enjoying collaboration with one another and enhance this through playfulness and humour. 
2.) They take pride in smooth cooperation, being genuinely helpful, tender and responsive to one another.
3.) They give as well as receive empathy to foster a sense of connection, security and most of all belonging.

I truly wonder what would happen to indicators that help us measure employee well-being such as engagement, satisfaction, desire to stay etc., if we emphasised these aspects in modern work settings. In all likelihood, they would simply go through the roof…

But more importantly, towards the end of people’s lives, employees would no longer regret having spent too much time at work. Instead, their work lives would contribute to answering the question “Why was I here?” with more meaning and joy.

Feature Photo Credit: Christin Mey

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