Do you find meaning in the work you do?
Work is a fundamental component of our lives, with the potential to influence our well-being. This underscores the importance of actively seeking ways to find purpose and meaning in our professional endeavours.
In this episode of the Ikigai Podcast, Nick discusses with Andrew Soren how individuals can find purpose and value in their work.
The consequences of obsessive passion
“This example is just the perfect illustration of what the dark side of meaningful work actually is. When the work that you do has a true high moral stake, what it can lead to is this obsessive passion. You care so much that you can't actually separate yourself, and that leads to this boundary inhibition where literally the boundaries between work and life become irrelevant.
That also means that all the people at home who might actually provide you social support, you're not spending time with them, they don't necessarily understand why you're working so hard. You also kind of have this perspective, when you're engaged in deeply meaningful work that the work is its own reward that there's intrinsic motivation rewards, so you accept less pay.
You actually go into job interviews expecting why I shouldn't get paid as much as this other job because I'm doing it, because it's good work. And not surprisingly, that leads to some exploitation within organisational contexts. And that generally tends to lead to negative emotions, like career regret, like why am I in this profession to begin with. All of that tends to lead to lower life satisfaction, all of that just increases a huge amount of stress that work can give to us, which infiltrates everything, and then that ultimately just leads to burnout.” Andrew Soren
Working with Carol Ryff. Andrew talks about co-authoring a paper with psychologist, Carol Ryff.
Meaningful work and eudaimonic vision. Andrew provides definitions for both meaningful work and the eudaimonic vision.
MIDUS (Midlife in the US). Andrew shares the findings of their study on MIDUS (Midlife in the US).
Work must offer us freedom. Andrew explains the idea of finding freedom in work.
Three possible needs that work provides. Andrew discusses the three potential work-related needs as outlined in his paper.
The dark side of meaningful work. Nick and Andrew delve into the dark side of meaningful work.
Great resignation and quiet quitting. Andrew talks about the post-pandemic workforce phenomena known as the great resignation and quiet quitting.
Mental health and well-being in the workplace. Andrew explains the framework for promoting mental health and well-being in the workplace.
Creating eudaimonic work. Andrew shares what companies should do to create eudaimonic work.
Individual strategies to create more meaningful work. Andrew shares strategies that people can use to find or create meaningful work.
Andrew Soren is the founder and CEO of Eudaimonic by Design, a global network of facilitators, coaches, and advisors who share a passion for well-being and believe organisations must be designed to enable it.
For the past 25 years, Andrew has worked with some of the most recognised brands, nonprofits, and public sector teams to co-create values-based cultures, develop positive leadership, and design systems that empower people to be their best.
Andrew is a board member of the International Positive Psychology Association, chaired the 8th World Congress on Positive Psychology in 2023, and is an ICF-certified coach.
Working with Carol Ryff
Andrew co-authored a paper with Carol Ryff titled, ‘Well-Being, and Health: Enhancing a Eudaimonic Vision.’ Carol Ryff is a psychologist who has made significant contribution to the idea of eudaimonia. In 1989, before the concept of positive psychology emerged, she came up with a model called psychological well-being that has six categorical dimensions developed from the literature of remarkable humanists and existentialists.
Since then, Carol has been working at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and is in charge of their Institute on Aging. She invited Andrew to co-edit an entire special issue of the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health about meaning and purpose in life and its relationship to our psychological and physical health. Part of that special issue is the article they wrote about meaningful work and its impact on our health and well-being.
Meaningful work and eudaimonic vision
There are diverse definitions for meaningful work. According to Andrew, most people tend to use the definition that Pratt and Ashforth came up with in 2003: that meaningful work is simply work that is personally significant and worthwhile.
Meaningful work manifests in various ways in the work that we do; we can find meaningful work in the tasks we perform, our roles in our organisations, or even our interactions with others.
Eudaimonia comes from the Greek words eu (good) and daimon (spirit, demon, or God). It can be translated as the good spirit that resides within each of us and varies with every individual.
According to Aristotle, eudaimonia can be achieved by acting in accordance with our virtue.
“It seems very relatable to existential positive psychology where we grow. And if we overcome challenges that are meaningful, or if we do work, or engage in activities that are worthwhile, yet, maybe challenging, we seem to grow and learn more about ourselves and become this fuller person and have a deeper understanding that we're capable of more or we uncover this part of ourselves that we didn't realise existed.” - Nicholas Kemp
MIDUS (Midlife in the US)
MIDUS (Midlife in the US) is a study based on a nationally representative sample of individuals in the United States. It is a national longitudinal study that links work to well-being and health. Since this research has been ongoing for decades, it is easier to track changes in each participant's health and psychological outcomes over the years.
Several papers have been published based on MIDAS, and those focusing on the aspect of work demonstrate that poor working conditions often predict ill health. This opens up opportunities to explore the aspects of work that can contribute to meaning and purpose in an individual's life.
Work must offer us freedom
Work is an essential part of our lives. The United Nations, through the International Labour Organization, asserts that work needs to be fundamentally decent, with four major attributes: equity, security, dignity, and freedom.
For Andrew, there are two ways to think about freedom in the context of work: freedom from and freedom to.
Freedom from adverse health and psychological risks identified in the MIDUS findings.
Freedom towards autonomy, dignity, and the development of human capabilities.
This can be tied into one of Mieko Kamiya's seven ikigai needs: freedom. Kamiya mentions putting aside personal freedom for a greater good, which can be applied to work—people sacrificing personal freedom to engage in meaningful work.
“People who choose to engage in deeply meaningful work are often making pretty extraordinary personal sacrifices.” - Andrew Soren
Three possible needs that work provides
David Blustein, a professor at Boston College, introduced the concept of the psychology of working, which he claims is predicated on three needs:
Survival (financial security)
Relatedness (support from coworkers)
Self-determination (control at work, including decision-making)
The dark side of meaningful work
Although meaningful work may motivate many people, it may also have some negative impacts on some, such as obsession and overworking. Andrew gave zookeepers as an example: zookeepers put in a lot of hours and work for long periods. They demonstrate a significant dedication to their work because they find meaning in it.
However, according to a study, zookeepers are often overworked and underpaid. Nevertheless, due to their understanding of the importance of their work, zookeepers continue to show up and fulfil their job responsibilities as expected.
While it may nurture intrinsic motivation, an excessive workload can take a toll on one's well-being and potentially lead to burnout.
“The dark side of meaningful work is when the work that you do has a true high moral stake, what it can lead to is this obsessive passion. You care so much that you can't actually separate yourself, and that leads to boundary inhibition, where boundaries between work and life become irrelevant.” - Andrew Soren
Great Resignation and Quiet Quitting
The Great Resignation became prevalent around 2021, during the post-pandemic lockdown, especially among younger workers and those in low-wage, in-person positions, which has made it challenging for employers to fill these jobs.
Quiet Quitting became prevalent around 2022, when employees become less psychologically invested in their work, putting minimal effort into their tasks and doing them merely out of necessity.
This leads to the question of whether, if workers start doing less, they will still be able to find meaning in their work.
Mental health and well-being in the workplace
Vivek Murthy, the Surgeon General of the United States, has developed an evidence-based framework that centres on the voices of workers and equity as the core focal points for organisations. The framework consists of:
Protection from harm - work should provide a sense of safety and security.
Community and connection - work is an excellent place for social support and a sense of belonging.
Work-life harmony - the importance of autonomy, self-determination, and flexibility in the workplace.
Opportunity for growth - including training, education, and mentoring for career advancement.
Mattering at work - satisfying the need for dignity and meaning in one's job.
Creating eudaimonic work
According to Andrew, there are three ways for companies to create eudaimonic work:
Having good human values at its core.
Implementing policies and practices designed to enact those values.
Demonstrating leadership behaviours that prioritise meaning in the workplace.
Michael Steger, a pioneering figure in the field of meaning in life and meaning in the workplace, introduced five major leadership behaviours, using the acronym CARMA:
Clarity - effectively communicating a meaningful mission or purpose.
Authenticity - staying true to one's self and one's values as a leader.
Respect - fostering a sense of community and connectedness among employees.
Mattering - acknowledging contributions and making individuals feel valued.
Autonomy - providing people with the flexibility and freedom to make their own choices.
Individual strategies to create more meaningful work
For Andrew, individuals can enhance their sense of meaning at work by starting with self-awareness: understanding their strengths and skills, and seeking jobs where they can apply these attributes.
For those who lack the freedom to choose their ideal job, Andrew recommends job crafting. This involves transforming your current job into one that aligns with your preferences by considering the goals you've set for yourself, your tasks, and relationships, and crafting them to align with your strengths and values.
Another technique individuals can employ is 'emplotment,' which involves framing your job as a narrative that you're shaping about yourself.
Hatarakigai is the concept of finding worth in one's work, which resonates with Andrew. He currently finds the work he does to be intrinsically rewarding. The topics of well-being and meaningful work, which he focuses on, have been receiving a lot of attention.
“You can't talk about meaningful work without talking about decent work. And I guess I feel pretty lucky to be able to do both on a daily basis.” - Andrew Soren
Our work can have a significant impact on our health and well-being, and not everyone is fortunate enough to be engaged in work they genuinely enjoy. Nevertheless, there are still strategies we can employ to discover meaning in the work we do. It is essential to identify our strengths and skills and find ways to apply them in our work, thus uncovering purpose in what we do.