Science Brief

Important, worthwhile and valuable employment

How helping others makes work more meaningful.

By Blake Allan, PhD

Blake A. Allan, PhDBlake A. Allan, PhD, is associate professor of counseling psychology at Purdue University. He earned his PhD from the University of Florida and his bachelor’s degree from the University of Western Ontario. His honors include a Visionary Grant from the American Psychological Foundation. Allan’s research broadly examines how personal and socioeconomic factors affect access to decent, meaningful and fulfilling work, and how these types of work relate to mental health and well-being. Within this area, Allan has focused on:

  • How prosocial behaviors lead to more meaningful work.
  • The conceptualization, measurement and impact of underemployment.
  • How factors like social class and occupational choice privilege are relevant for obtaining decent, meaningful and fulfilling work. 

Author website.



What is meaningful work?

Like most constructs in psychology, people have different perspectives on what it means to have meaningful work, but the concept generally refers to work that is important, worthwhile and valuable (e.g., Martela & Pessi, 2018; May, Gibson, & Harter, 2004; Pratt & Ashforth, 2003). In essence, meaningful work reflects a belief system that one’s work is worth doing beyond meeting basic needs. Meaningful work answers the questions, “Why am I working beyond earning a paycheck? Why am I here?” People’s answers likely have to do with accomplishing goals and aspirations that fulfill deeply held values that align with their community’s values. In other words, people find their work meaningful when they see it as intrinsically valuable and connecting to something bigger than themselves.

A simple parable nicely illustrates the idea of meaningful work (Dik & Duffy, 2012). According to an apocryphal story, the architect Sir Christopher Wren saw three bricklayers working on a site in 1671. He asked each of them what they were doing. The first said, “I’m working.” The second said, “I’m building a wall.” But the third said, “I’m building a cathedral.” The third bricklayer was able to connect to the greater purpose of his work, and I would argue this purpose is social: he sees value in building a cathedral for the community.

What makes work meaningful?

Consider this question for a moment: What makes your work meaningful? As a work psychologist, I often ask people this question, and the response almost always has to do with helping other people directly or contributing to society in some way. Through a series of studies and experiments, my colleagues and I have found mounting support for this idea — when people view their work as benefitting others, they find it more meaningful. In an early study, we systematically asked American workers what makes their work meaningful (Allan, Autin & Duffy, 2014). Participants overwhelmingly cited helping others (70 percent) or contributing to the greater good (16 percent). People who cited helping others generally talked about a personal experience of benefitting someone else (e.g., “‘‘[My work] can have a direct impact on warfighters and save lives”) whereas people contributing to the greater good generally saw their work as positively contributing to their company, community, or country (e.g., ‘‘My work contributes to the flow of the nation’s economy, which has vast implications on the entire country’’). Smaller proportions of people cited things like personal growth and enjoyment (7 percent), generating knowledge (5 percent), and forming relationships (2 percent).

These results suggested that helping others is a central driver of meaningful work, and supporting this claim, other scholars found strong, cross-sectional correlations between “task significance” — the perception that one’s work benefits others — and meaningful work (e.g., Schnell, Höge & Pollet, 2013). However, correlation does not prove causation, and the next step was to examine whether task significance predicted meaningful work over time in an ecologically valid setting. To evaluate this, I surveyed 632 working university alumni three times over a six-month period (Allan, 2017). As expected, perceiving work as benefitting others at baseline and three months predicted greater work meaningfulness at three months and six months, respectively. Although this strengthened the research base, we could not draw firmer conclusions without experimental studies.

As a result, in a series of three experiments, my colleagues and I showed that increasing people’s perceptions of task significance also increased meaningful work (Allan, Duffy, & Collison, 2018a). In Experiment 1, we recruited 284 undergraduate students at a U.S. institution and randomly assigned them to one of three conditions. In all conditions, participants typed “XZ” as many times as they could in a five-minute period, which corresponded to how much money they earned (from Ariely, Bracha & Meier, 2009). The first group kept the money (Personal Condition) — about enough to buy a Starbucks coffee — and the second group donated the money to the American Red Cross (Significance Condition). The third group also donated the money but completed the task after watching a video of someone who the American Red Cross helped after his house burned down (Beneficiary Contact Condition). To control for any unexpected effects, participants in the Personal Condition watched the same video and participants in the Significance Condition watched the same video with references to the American Red Cross edited out. After the task, we administered a survey to participants asking the meaningfulness of the task.

As shown in Figure 1, people who kept the money reported less task meaningfulness than people who donated their money and those who donated their money after watching someone who benefitted from the charity, t(281) = 4.39, p < .001, d = .52. People who donated their money after watching the video also had significantly higher task meaningfulness than people who only donated to the charity, t(281) = 2.75, p = .003, d = .33. In summary, this indicated that people who help others experience more meaningfulness but especially if they see directly how they are helping others (see Grant, 2008).

Figure 1

Figure 1.  Task meaningfulness in Study 1 experimental groups. 

Note: Task meaningfulness is in z-scores, and error bars represent 95 percent confidence intervals.

In Experiment 2, we randomly assigned an online sample of 99 working adults to one of two conditions. We asked the first group to write about a recent task they completed at work and the second group to write about a recent task they completed at work that helped another person. After the intervention, we measured meaningful work in both groups and found that participants who recalled a time when they helped someone else reported having more meaningful work, t(97) = 1.73, p < .05, d = .35. In short, a simple memory recall task improved the meaningfulness of work by a third of a standard deviation, at least temporarily.

In Experiment 3, we recruited 108 university employees and surveyed them everyday for two weeks. The first group completed surveys with no additional instructions. The second group did something new each day to help someone else at work. Finally, the third group did five new things to help other people at work all on one day each week (similar to Lyubomirsky, Sheldon & Schkade, 2005). As we expected, only participants in the final condition reported increasing meaningful work over the course of the study. This suggests that the largest benefits from helping others occur if people concentrate their efforts all on one “helping day.”

Taken together, these studies suggest that contributing to the welfare of others is a central driver of meaningful work. Helping other people is a fundamental and cross-cultural human value that is embedded within us and our communities (e.g., Aknin et al., 2013). Considering how central helping others is to us as a social species, prosocial behaviors at work likely fulfill deeply held values, which creates a sense of meaningfulness.

Why does meaningful work matter?

First off, meaningful work is worthwhile in and of itself. Scholars in positive psychology consider meaning to be a fundamental component of human well-being (e.g., King & Napa, 1998; Ryff & Singer, 1998), and meaningful work correlates with a host of well-being variables. For example, people who say their work is meaningful report greater mental health (Allan, Dexter, Kinsey & Parker, 2018), meaning in life (Allan, Duffy & Douglass, 2015), life satisfaction (Allan, Rolniak & Bouchard, in press), and positive affect (Allan et al., in press). At work, they also report higher job satisfaction (Allan, Dexter, et al., 2018) and are more likely to report feeling and living a calling (Duffy, Allan, Autin & Bott, 2013). Meaningful work may also buffer the negative impacts of stress on meaning in life, depression, and health risk behaviors (Allan, Douglass, Duffy & McCarty, 2016; Lease, Ingram & Brown, 2017). In short, having meaningful work is an intrinsic good that is part of a flourishing life and may even protect against the negative impacts of stress. 


Apart from well-being, meaningful work also has implications for the functioning and productivity of workers. Meaningful work correlates with self-rated (Allan, Duffy & Collisson, 2018b) and supervisor-rated job performance (Harris, Kacmar & Zivnuska, 2007) and can increase objective performance in laboratory settings (Ariely, Kamenica & Prelec, 2008). In addition, as shown in a recent meta-analysis by my colleagues and me, meaningful work has large correlations with a host of positive states at work (Allan, Batz, Sterling & Tay, under review). Specifically, we found support for the claim that meaningful work leads to positive attitudinal and affective states (i.e., work engagement, job satisfaction and commitment), which may then lead to behavioral changes (i.e., better performance, organizational citizenship behaviors and fewer intentions to withdrawal). In summary, meaningful work likely matters as much to organizations as it does to individuals.

Implications

About one third of people report having meaningless work (e.g., Allan et al., 2014), and the research I discussed above suggests several things people can do to address this issue. First, people can think deeply about how their works benefits others. Arguably, almost all work is embedded within a social system and in some way improves the welfare of others. As a result, organizations often have “ultimate aspirations” that communicate how they contribute to the greater good (Carton, 2018), but the difficulty can be in linking individual, everyday tasks to these ultimate aspirations. 

To explain further, the industrial revolution led to specialization of labor where workers focused on a narrower set of tasks. A toy maker in the nineteenth century created and built toys from start to finish and saw the joy on children’s faces when they played with them. Today, creating a toy is broken into hundreds of smaller tasks that can seem meaningless. As shown in Experiment 1 above, when people understand how smaller tasks benefit others, they can experience more meaningfulness. Leaders are critical in showing how these tasks connect to a broader social mission (Carton, 2018). One concrete way to accomplish this is to increase workers’ contact with the people who benefit from their work (Grant, 2008). Regardless, leaders should intentionally craft ultimate aspirations, and organizations that focus on the social good, such as by emphasizing corporate social responsibility, may foster meaningfulness in their employees (e.g., Akdoğan, Arslan, & Demirtaş, 2016).

Apart from leadership, individual workers might set aside a day each week to go out of their way to help others at work, whether they are clients or coworkers. People might also keep a journal of times when they helped others and write down these memories in as much detail as possible. These small acts may help people better recognize how they and their work matters and makes a positive difference in the world. 

Acknowledgments

This work was sponsored in part by the Society of Consulting Psychology and the University of Florida. Thank you to my co-authors and the many students who assisted with these projects. 

References

Akdoğan, A.A., Arslan, A., & Demirtaş, Ö. (2016). A strategic influence of corporate social responsibility on meaningful work and organizational identification, via perceptions of ethical leadership. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 235, 259-268.

Aknin, L.B., Barrington-Leigh, C.P., Dunn, E.W., Helliwell, J.F., Burns, J., Biswas-Diener, R., Kemeza, I., Nyende, P., Ashton-James, C.E., & Norton, M.I. (2013). Prosocial spending and well-being: Cross-cultural evidence for a psychological universal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(4), 635.

Allan, B.A. (2017). Task significance and meaningful work: A longitudinal study. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 102, 174-182. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jvb.2017.07.011.

Allan, B.A., Autin, K.L., & Duffy, R.D. (2014). Examining social class and work meaning within the psychology of working framework. Journal of Career Assessment, 22(4), 543-561. doi: 10.1177/1069072713514811.

Allan, B.A., Batz, C., Sterling, H. & Tay, L. (under review). Outcomes of meaningful work: A meta-analysis.

Allan, B.A., Dexter, C., Kinsey, R., & Parker, S. (2018). Meaningful work and mental health: Job satisfaction as a moderator. Journal of Mental Health, 27(1), 38-44. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09638237.2016.1244718.

Allan, B.A., Duffy, R.D., & Collisson, B. (2018a). Helping others increases meaningful work: Evidence from three experiments. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 65(2), 155-165. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/cou0000228.

Allan, B.A., Duffy, R.D., & Collisson, B. (2018b). Task significance and performance: Meaningfulness as a mediator. Journal of Career Assessment, 26(1), 172-182. https://doi.org/10.1177/1069072716680047.

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