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The 4 Dimensions of Meaningful Work.

Updated: Feb 20, 2022

Struggling to find meaning in your work? Well, so did I.

I absolutely hated my last job.

Despite this, I stuck around for nearly three entire years. That was a significant amount of my life gone to waste.

Why did I stick around so long? Well, one of my readers I chat with on email shared the term "Golden Handcuffs". That's exactly what it was.

I'll be honest, the pay was pretty darn good and so were the benefits. We had great insurance and medical coverage, and more annual leave than I could count with my two hands and feet.

We even got bonus payouts that came round March every year. These ranged from three months and upwards. Yet, that only served to keep me even more locked in.

Each time I wanted to quit, I was blocked by the "rational" belief that I should at least wait till March came around. It seemed like the smart thing to do, right?

Not really, because the most rational thing I could have really done was to quit much, much earlier, and preserve the happiness of myself and my family.

There were many times in the course of the three years I contemplated quitting. Yet, beyond the fixation of waiting for my bonus, the over-arching mentality that stopped me in my tracks was:

"Who am I to complain? Why don't I just treat it as work like everyone else does. As long as I stay, my family would never have to worry about money. It would be stupid for me to quit."

Golden Handcuffs indeed.

As a trained Organisational Psychologist, I really should have known better.

There was a severe job misfit between the way the company operated and my intrinsic preferences, personality and values. For one, my company was highly bureaucratic. There were always several hurdles to go through even when you wanted something simple done.

For example, getting my interns or new hires access to the printer took at least a week to be processed.

I also worked on behavioural science projects, spending several months building a sophisticated methodology to improve our marketing to customers.

It went through multiple rounds of buy-ins from stakeholders, only to eventually be put on pause by the Head of Marketing because "it's easier to stick to the old ways".

As another point, my company still operated with an autocratic, top-down management style. All work tasks, projects and information only came down-stream, and seldom were we giving the opportunity to understand whether our work had an impact or not.

At its core, I also found it really difficult to like my ex-colleagues. I'm a person who values personal growth, sharing and helping others. My ex-colleagues were more of the "Er don't talk to me. I'm just here for the money."

A popular phrase amongst my ex-collegues was "I'm very busy". How they managed to be so busy but still take two-hour lunch breaks and play games on their phones is something I'll never understand.

I mean, think about it too. Who are the kind of people who are happy working under the above conditions? Probably people who would never do volunteer work or read a single self-help or psychology book in their lives right?

I can go on forever - but that's not the point. The point is, I was really drowning in this job.

Each day felt meaningless.

Look, everybody is different. Others might like their job at this company. I don't blame them (though I might judge them). It's just that I didn't. It conflicted with who I am and what I valued.

I finally managed to quit this year in March. Right after collecting my annual bonus. It felt like a giant weight was off my shoulders.

I was free at last. Since then, I've never looked back and regretted that decision either.

If there's one thing I can thank this company for, it's that it taught me to stop treating my mental health as a second priority. Instead, to put me and my family's happiness first and to never suppress my personal values for the sake of financial gain.

It taught me, in a career sense, to repurpose my career into meaningful work. In fact, since I had plans set-in-stone to quit in March this year, I decided to make my last few months at this company I hated more enjoyable.

Why waste more of my time, I figured. If anything, I should make the most out of it before finding my next role.

Here's the framework that turned my life and work into a Meaningful one.

The Four Dimensions of Meaningful Work.

To start off with, I didn't pull these four dimensions out of a magic sock.

It's actually based on thorough research across a study spanning six years by Organisational psychologists. When Organisational Psychologists talk about Meaningful work, what do they mean?

Well, the simplest explanation is that it helps to answer the question:

"Why am I here?"

When you find yourself doing meaningful work, life simply makes sense. The energy you devote into work feels purposeful and worthy of the commitment you put in.

On the other hand, when work feels meaningless, it brings about a sense of existential insignificance. That is, it feels like you don't matter, that you feel like some apparition floating around while others around you seems to be thriving.

For those of you who believe that meaningful work is simply a luxury for the lucky few, here's the case for it - research has found that merely being satisfied with your job, be it pay or task-wise, isn't enough on its own for you to enjoy better mental health and flourish in your life.

It is only when your work is also meaningful that it can lead to better mental health and less depression, anxiety and stress.

Don't we all deserve to be happier and enjoy good mental wellbeing in our lives?

While I can appreciate that it's not a privilege everyone can afford, I believe it's also on the part of organisations and an ethical duty for them to recognise the importance of mental health of its employees - regardless of their level of experience or seniority - and Meaning is very much a part of it.

So whether it is you're reading this personally for yourself, or you're someone (hopefully from my ex-company) who cares about the mental health of your employees, understanding these four dimensions is a great start.

1) Meaningful work enables you to develop and live true to yourself.

Have you ever found that you were sitting in the office or going into a meeting pretending to be someone you're not? Are you working on things that goes against your values, for example, selling a product that you don't really believe in?

The researchers found that meaningful work entails the following:

  • Moral Development: being able to practice your principles and values and telling yourself "Wow, I'm really doing the right thing here."

  • Personal Growth: the sense that you're growing and developing. There is ongoing learning for you at work and you are provided with new responsibilities that are the right amount of challenge for you.

  • Staying true to oneself: being able to maintain your own unique identity and not to be someone you're not. That you don't have to pretend to be sociable, talkative, agreeable, unagreeable, or anything that you really aren't.

For a large part of my previous job, I had to pretend I was happy to be a cog in the wheel, and to just get things done instead of asking "Why".

In the last few months, I decided to start being true to my inquisitive self. Of course, this didn't work with everyone. Some of the higher ups gave me weird looks, that I read as "er, who are you to ask?".

That didn't set me back at all, since I was leaving anyway. It did however open up new conversations from people who cared. For example, I managed to find alignment from a project mate on that behavioural science initiative I was building. Together, we pushed for it and built a case on why this innovation was necessary.

We ended up getting support from other stakeholders, which collectively, finally drove the Head of Marketing to agree to trying it out at least. And we did. From what I hear after I left, it's been pretty successful.

The other thing I did was to use my free time to pursue my own development. I decided to turn the actual work I had to do each day into a game - I finished it as quickly as I could.

This opened up a lot more time for me. Guess what I did? I spent my time studying Psychology again and started this blog.

2) You feel a sense of belonging.

Even if you're the most introverted person in the world, spending everyday in absolute recluse isn't going to be healthy for you. Trust me, I've tried.

Research has constantly found that having positive connection with others is integral to our physical and mental health wellbeing. Especially since work takes up such a large portion of your time, you need to establish positive connections there too.

The researchers found positive connections in meaningful work entails the following:

  • Shared values: since values are the essence of who you are, finding shared values with another person innately allows for a much deeper connection.

  • Belonging: this is the informal sense of you feel cared for by others and that you also care for others at your work. It's about enjoying the breaks together, chatting about how your families are doing, and friendships that extend outside of work.

  • Working together: this is the bond created by real teamwork, one that allows the experience of working toward a common purpose, instead of it feeling "forced".

I was fortunate that a new colleague joined six months before I left where I was assigned to be his mentor. We almost immediately connected based on our shared values of a love of learning and pushing new boundaries.

Together, we spent the last few months of my work developing and building new products. Even though I was his mentor, I encouraged him to challenge me on my ideas and work. He was a fantastic coder, and we actively tested each other on our coding skills and spurred each other to get better. I really wished he had joined earlier.

Even though I left the company, our friendship still remains. In fact, I'm looking forward to catch up with him next week. We all need a real friend at work.

3) It's about serving something bigger than yourself.

If there was one definition on Meaning that Psychologists can all agree on, it would be that Meaning is about serving something bigger than yourself.

Often times, we equate our search for Meaningful Work as "following our dreams". For example, dreaming that you will become a book writer, a musician, or starting your own business and becoming an entrepreuneur.

Yet, have you actually paused and asked yourself "why"? There is a world of difference between Meaningful work and living out a fantasy.

The researchers assert that work becomes meaningful through the following:

  • Making a difference: the feeling that you're making a contribution to others through your work. It doesn't have to be directed to your customers or clients, but can entail the people within the organisation too.

  • Meeting humanity's needs: when you see a clear link between the work you do and a cause you believe in, i.e. the mentality that "I work for a company that does good work."

Through the mentorship with my friend and my renewed openness to be my true self with others at work, my existence started to feel significant again. It always feels good to know that you are enriching the lives of others. In my case, it was to help my mentee along his journey and making actual, real change in the company.

I'll be honest though, I've tried a thousand times but it was hard to see a link between my work and a cause for "humanity". The organisation's values were just simply too different from mine.

How did I make this aspect better? I made the best out of work but devoted my spare time to helping others through this blog.

This wouldn't have been possible if I hadn't first changed my mindset about work. If I had kept doing what I had been doing in the prior years, I would have simply continued to come home each day feeling depressed, grumpy and unmotivated.

Instead, because I started to transform my day job into something a bit more Meaningful, it gave me the energy and space to create this blog. So, to the nay-sayers, it is very possible to have a side project while you're working.

Yet remember, since your day job takes up most of your time - fix that first. With a clearer mind and renewed motivation, you will find yourself open to new possibilities that were previously blocked from your sight.

4) There is a sense you're achieving your potential.

Lastly, Meaningful work is about being able to express your full potential. It's the knowledge that you are not letting your strengths, gifts and innate talents as a person go to waste.

There are three aspects to this:

  • Creating: the feeling that you are going into new and unexplored territories. To be surprised and fulfilled by the outcomes created by your own two hands.

  • Achieving: the act of mastering something, of taking your strengths and skills to the next level.

  • Influencing: that you have the power to change a viewpoint or situation of something or somebody else.

This really is the point that brings all the above together.

As you can see, I started to view "work" as a portfolio of both my day job and this side hobby of writing this blog.

Along with it came the sense that I was creating something new each day, whether they were the projects I was pushing for at the company, or the fulfillment that came from writing these articles.

You start to feel different about yourself when you live each day working towards your full potential. There is intrinsic joy in knowing that you aren't wasting your time, and are creating something of value.

At the start, this value you create might purely be for yourself. For example, in the first few months, the only person reading this blog other than myself was my dad.

Still, let me assure you. There is a sense of achievement when you are pushing yourself to try out something new and using your strengths in new ways.

I have to admit, the last few months at the company was pretty enjoyable.

I felt like I was leaving on a good note, having established a strong friendship in my mentee, and ensuring my project took flight before I left.

As for this blog, I really thank you, the people who are reading this and write in with your own personal struggles as well as insights. You are the reason why I keep writing each day. You are the reason that gives me confidence that I am serving something bigger than myself and that I'm inching forward to my full potential.

Thank you.

As for you, I believe you can find Meaning in your work too. As I've shared, it involves a bit of a mindset change. The good news is, you can start small.

Small changes in mindset leads to you taking up new behaviours. New behaviours will inevitably lead to new outcomes too - for example, people might change the way they respond to you. Things you regarded as failures in the past become mere setbacks.

Importantly, since you're willing to try a thousand new things, there's high chance one of them will lead to a good outcome too.

Slowly by slowly, you will get more and more evidence that you're on the right track. And that's all you need to start feeling like you're doing Meaningful Work.

You've got this.

Thanks for reading Kaya Toast for the Soul. Got questions? Simply email me. You know I'd love to hear from you :)

1 Comment

Hello Hernping, thank you for sharing your struggles about your work so openly, I can so identify with this post.


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