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Work with Meaning

At the two-day festival of learning, Dare to Learn, Frank Martela, coach and researcher at the University of Helsinki, and Jaakko Sahimaa, organizational psychologist and the founder of Meaningful Work Finland, had a fireside chat where they discussed the elements of meaningful work, how meaningfulness can be measured and how we, as individuals, can contribute to the meaningfulness of our work.

Frank Martela (right) and Jaakko Sahimaa discussing the meaningfulness of work at the Dare to Learn event.

In the daily grind it can sometimes be challenging to find joy in every routine. Work is a part of this. You may find you have entire workdays where you perform the necessary tasks without feeling the slightest bit of joy. Is that bad? According to Jaakko Sahimaa, there is no need to despair.

- Work does not always have to be fun to be meaningful. It’s important to separate the personal level from the impact and purpose of the work, he says.

You can find satisfaction in knowing how your work fits into the bigger scheme of things. When you know your work has an impact, you do not need to feel happy about every task in order to feel good about your work.

"You do not need to feel happy about every task in order to feel good about your work."

What about the other side of the coin? Can work be too meaningful? If you ask Frank Martela, yes it can, and this may have unwanted consequences.

- The downside of work that is too meaningful is that others can worsen the working conditions and you would still think this is ok. People might exploit your sense of meaningfulness, he says.

Sahimaa nods. Too much meaningfulness can lead to workaholism, which can be disastrous if the working conditions are not optimal.

-It can be a problem if you feel your work is too meaningful. High motivation will not protect you from stress and burnout, so motivation won’t be enough, if the working conditions are not good, adds Sahimaa.
We need to make working life good for everyone
So, a lot has to do with balance and knowing your limits. But when it comes to the work environment, there is only so much an individual can do. We, as a society, have a responsibility to make working life good for all of us.

- Society’s ultimate purpose is to provide welfare and meaningfulness to its citizens. We spend most of our waking hours working, so we need to strive for a society where as many people as possible experience meaningfulness in their work as well as in their free time, says Martela.

This requires action and a way of monitoring progress, and Sahimaa has a couple of ideas for this.

- We need more discussion in the media about how to measure meaningful work and it would be important to talk to the leaders who enforce this.

So, we depend on our society to help us find meaningful work, but what can we do if we fail to find meaning in our work? Martela and Sahimaa offer a few tips.

- If your work feels meaningless, examine your options. You may need to change the work you do, or you could do some job crafting, which involves asking what elements can be added or removed from your work. You could also think of a new way of regarding your work and think about the purpose of your work and your attitude towards it. For example, do you just clean floors, or, by cleaning floors, do you make the environment better for others, says Martela.

- In order to be successful in job crafting, you need to have an understanding of your values, competencies, skills and goals, and about the issues and topics you want to change through your work, adds Sahimaa.

Text and image: Suvi Seikkula

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