Searching for meaning at work? Increase your task significance

More and more people are searching for meaning at work, rather than for a salary or sense of achievement. It’s not surprising given the amount of time we spend at work. The fact that we are more productive, happier, and committed to our organisations when our jobs are meaningful, has made finding meaning even more important.

So what makes our work meaningful? The latest research has found task significance to be a powerful predictor. Task significance is when you believe the work you do benefits others. It can be visible like the work of firefighters, doctors, drivers, etc., or invisible like coders, researchers, or administrators.

Not sure if your job has task significance? Rate your agreement with the following five statements on a 5-point scale (1-strongly disagree to 5-strongly agree) the higher the score, the more the task significance and meaning in your work.

  1. My job provides opportunities to substantially improve the welfare of others
  2. A lot of others can be positively affected by how well my job gets done
  3. My job gives me the chance to make a significant positive difference in others’ lives.
  4. My job has the potential to make others’ lives much better.
  5. My job provides opportunities to have a positive impact on others on a regular basis.

If your score is low (<18), you can give it a boost by connecting your daily efforts to how it helps others, particularly useful for those working in ‘invisible’ jobs. Writing down how you are helping others regularly or deliberately taking time out of your job (if low on task significance) to help others will also help.

For organisations, you can help employees find their work more meaningful by connecting them with the people who benefit from their work, e.g., customers. Working in the IT service industry for the last few years, I’ve seen a reluctance to connect employees directly with customers, and a preference to keep employees behind the scenes during important customer visits. I think this is a missed opportunity to improve employee job satisfaction. Look at Apple genius labs who removed the invisible layer and has technicians resolve customer problems right in front of their eyes. Have you ever wondered why they are so engaged and helpful? Task significance has a big role to play.

For regular employees in B2B organisations, one can increase meaning by expanding ones’ impact on others beyond defined role and team boundaries. For example, promoting cross-functional work and involvement in companywide CSR initiatives. This would help to cultivate a pro-social environment, and enable employees to ‘do more good.’

The key take-away is that by perceiving your work as improving the welfare of others, leads to experiencing your work as meaningful, leading to higher well-being and productivity of organisations. Hackman and Oldham highlighted this way back in the 70s including task significance along with skill variety, task identity, autonomy and feedback from the job as critical characteristics for job satisfaction. It’s time we started implementing!