Em­ploy­ees want jobs to mat­ter, but mean­ing at work can be hard to find

Lodi News-Sentinel - - Business - By Alexia Ele­jalde-Ruiz

CHICAGO — Jen­nifer Ruiz holds her pa­tient’s trem­bling hand as she presses a stetho­scope to the frail woman’s chest and belly. She com­pli­ments the woman on her re­cently painted fin­ger­nails. She cheer­fully asks how she’s feel­ing, know­ing she’ll get no an­swer from the lit­tle curled body in the big hospi­tal bed but for a pen­e­trat­ing stare.

Ruiz, a hos­pice nurse, finds her work deeply mean­ing­ful, in part for rea­sons that are ob­vi­ous: “We get to be there for peo­ple dur­ing some of the most tragic and tough times in their lives,” she said.

But even those who shep­herd the dy­ing and their fam­i­lies through the fear, heart­break and mys­tery of the end of life can lose sight of a job’s mean­ing in the stress of the day-to­day, if their em­ployer doesn’t fos­ter it.

“You have to fan that flame,” said Brenda Mc­Gar­vey, cor­po­rate di­rec­tor of pro­gram de­vel­op­ment at Skok­iebased Unity Hos­pice, where Ruiz works. “It’s your re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

A job’s mean­ing­ful­ness — a sense that the work has a broader pur­pose — is con­sis­tently and over­whelm­ingly ranked by em­ploy­ees as one of the most im­por­tant fac­tors driv­ing job sat­is­fac­tion. It’s the linch­pin of qual­i­ties that make a valu­able em­ployee: mo­ti­va­tion, job per­for­mance and a de­sire to show up and stay.

Mean­ing­ful work needn’t be lofty. Peo­ple find mean­ing pick­ing up garbage, in­stalling win­dows and sell­ing elec­tron­ics — if they con­nect with why it mat­ters.

But many em­ploy­ers seem to be miss­ing an op­por­tu­nity to tap this crit­i­cal vein.

In a sur­vey con­ducted by En­er­gage for the Chicago Tri­bune’s 2017 Top Work­places mag­a­zine, lo­cal em­ploy­ees re­garded their em­ploy­ers more pos­i­tively than the na­tional av­er­age on nearly all mea­sures, but com­pa­nies fell sig­nif­i­cantly short in re­sponse to this state­ment: “My job makes me feel like I am part of some­thing mean­ing­ful.” Mean­ing­ful­ness also was the only mea­sure that did not see any im­prove­ment among Chicago-area re­spon­dents this year, com­pared with last.

The sur­vey re­sults, based on re­sponses from more than 67,000 lo­cal em­ploy­ees across 219 com­pa­nies, sug­gest there is room for em­ploy­ers to more ef­fec­tively en­cour­age a sense of mean­ing at work, or at least not erode it. That in turn could im­prove re­ten­tion, which is on the minds of many em­ploy­ers as un­em­ploy­ment stays near his­toric lows and em­ploy­ees look for bet­ter op­por­tu­ni­ties. The process re­quired to re­place an em­ployee costs about 70 per­cent of that per­son’s an­nual salary, and up to twice the salary when it in­volves a se­nior leader, ac­cord­ing to En­er­gage, an Ex­ton, Pa.-based con­sul­tancy for­merly known as Work­place­Dy­nam­ics.

Find­ing mean­ing in work is im­por­tant to ev­ery­one, but em­ploy­ers should keep in mind that mil­len­nial em­ploy­ees are par­tic­u­larly keen on un­der­stand­ing a com­pany’s so­cial im­pact, due per­haps to so­cial me­dia that has let them feel con­nected to the world.

“I think it’s hy­per­sen­si­tiv­ity to un­der­stand­ing the world in a real-time ba­sis, and they can see the im­me­di­ate im­pact of that en­gage­ment,” said Jon Shana­han, CEO of Busi­nes­solver, a ben­e­fits tech­nol­ogy com­pany based in Des Moines, Iowa.

More mean­ing also could cut down on ab­sen­teeism. In a study pub­lished in 2012 in the Journal of Ca­reer As­sess­ment, re­searchers found that peo­ple skip work not be­cause they’re dis­sat­is­fied, un­com­mit­ted or even in­tend to quit, but rather be­cause they find the work mean­ing­less.

So what makes a job mean­ing­ful? And how do you achieve it?

A line of work doesn’t have to feel like a call­ing to feel mean­ing­ful, said Ja­clyn Jensen, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor in the de­part­ment of man­age­ment and en­trepreneur­ship at DePaul Univer­sity.

Rather, Jensen said, cit­ing re­search on the topic dat­ing back 40 years, a job’s mean­ing­ful­ness is driven by five fac­tors, the three most im­por­tant be­ing that it al­lows you to use a va­ri­ety of skills, that it has an im­pact on other peo­ple’s lives and that you are able see the prod­uct of your work from be­gin­ning to end. The other fac­tors are hav­ing au­ton­omy to do your best work and re­ceiv­ing feedback about your per­for­mance.

Or­ga­ni­za­tions can de­sign jobs to max­i­mize those fea­tures, such as high­light­ing how the job helps other peo­ple, Jensen said. That im­pact can of­ten be lost on em­ploy­ees who don’t get to con­nect di­rectly with the ben­e­fi­cia­ries of their work.

Take univer­sity stu­dents who work at call cen­ters con­tact­ing alumni to ask for do­na­tions, a high-turnover job that helps fund stu­dent schol­ar­ships. Part of the job in­cludes get­ting hung up on and yelled at for in­ter­rupt­ing din­ner. In a field ex­per­i­ment a decade ago, re­searchers had call­ers meet schol­ar­ship re­cip­i­ents to talk about how the funds af­fected their lives. A month later the call­ers had dou­bled and tripled their call vol­ume, the amount of money raised and the num­ber of pledges they brought in, the re­searchers found.

“You need to con­nect the re­cip­i­ents of the per­son’s per­for­mance back with the per­son them­selves,” Jensen said.

As im­por­tant as en­cour­ag­ing mean­ing is re­frain­ing from snuff­ing it out.

"Em­ploy­ers are re­ally good at killing peo­ple’s sense of in­her­ent mean­ing­ful­ness in what they are do­ing,” said Amy Wrzes­niewski, a pro­fes­sor of or­ga­ni­za­tional be­hav­ior at Yale Univer­sity’s School of Man­age­ment. That can hap­pen when a job is made so fast-paced and over­loaded that peo­ple feel they can’t do it well, or when overly con­trol­ling bosses mi­cro­man­age the sense of own­er­ship out of a job.


Dorothy Par­rott talks to her mother, Juanita Davis, at her home in Calumet City, Ill. Davis re­ceives care from Unity Hos­pice, where Par­rott is the vol­un­teer co­or­di­na­tor.

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