What Makes Work Meaningful?

Author: Bendik Sparre Hovet

In antiquity, paid work was looked down upon. Those who spent their time solely to earn money, rather than to serve society or create something of intrinsic value, were morally frowned upon. Today, earning money for the work you do is seen as the norm. However, in recent years there has been a growing awareness that work should also be meaningful. But what does it mean for work to be perceived as meaningful?

A first point is that meaningful work is better work. When work is perceived as meaningful, people do their jobs better. People work harder, feel more responsible for their work and the result is of higher quality. The most important factors that have been shown to underlie perceptions of work as meaningful are coherence, significance, purpose, and belonging. Coherence is how people’s characteristics, skills and life goals fit with the work. Significance is about knowing that the work positively affects other people or society as a whole. Purpose is about pursuing a shared goal that you can identify with, and that is more than just earning money. Finally, belonging is about feeling part of a safe and stable group where you are respected. If you experience these four factors of meaning in your work, there is a very high probability that you will really like your job!

Because meaning is so important for a good experience and performance at work, it is important to understand the psychological processes behind meaning at work. To do this, Schnell and Hoffmann (2020) developed the Modular Meaning in Work Inventory (ME-Work). It measures meaning in work through three parts. The first part asks about the four factors of coherence, meaningfulness, purpose and belonging. The second part focuses on whether the job is perceived as meaningful and/or meaningless. Finally, in part three, ME-Work explores the extent to which the job is seen as an important source of meaning in the person’s life. Their study showed that of the four factors of meaningful work, coherence was the most important for whether the job was perceived as an important source of meaning. That is, the coherence of the job with the person’s characteristics and life goals determined whether this work contributed to a person’s meaning in life. On the other hand, it was significance, that the job positively affects other people or society, that was most important for whether the job itself was seen as meaningful. For women, belonging was particularly important: if it was not present, the job was directly perceived as more meaningless.

The importance of meaningfulness in the job should not be underestimated. If there is no meaning in their work, people become cynical. This cynicism leads to burnout more quickly, which a better understanding of what makes work meaningful can work against. At the same time, a potential danger of meaningful work is that it makes it easier to be exploited: It makes people more willing to accept lower pay and worse working conditions, and is something to keep in mind when looking for a meaningful job.


Schnell, T. & Hoffmann, C. (2020). ME-Work: Development and Validation of a Modular Meaning in Work Inventory. Frontiers in Psychology. 11:599913. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.599913

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