3 Ways to Build Meaning Into Your Workplace

March 22, 2016 Sarah Payne

Forward-thinking HR and business leaders are focusing more on metrics related to employee well-being and happiness, in addition to traditional satisfaction or engagement. But how do we define happiness and well-being? Are they related?

WorkHuman speaker Shawn Achor defines happiness as “the joy you feel striving toward your potential.” He outlines four main qualities that sustain happiness:

  • Optimism – believing that our behavior will eventually matter
  • Social connection – the breadth and depth of our relationships
  • The way we perceive stresses – as challenges instead of threats
  • Meaning – the connection between our actions and our values

As such, he argues that “happiness in this definition cannot be stripped from meaning and from growth.”

Meaning is also an important aspect of well-being, which often falls into two categories: hedonic well-being (a sense of happiness) and eudaimonic well-being (a sense of meaning and purpose). So you can’t talk about happiness or well-being without a discussion about meaning.

New research on meaning at work

This connection between happiness, well-being, and meaning, is especially interesting in light of new research from the Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends 2016 report. Based on the latest workforce trends, the report suggests that the traditional definitions of engagement need to expand to include: “meaningful work, hands-on management, a positive work environment, opportunities for growth, and trust in organizational leadership.”

According to Deloitte, “Free food and ping-pong tables are fun perks, but companies that succeed in having highly engaged employees focus intently on driving meaning, purpose, and passion among workers.”

This is validated in the new Great Place to Work® report, “Connecting People and Purpose,” which shows that among great workplaces, more than any other factor, an employee’s belief that their work has special meaning is most closely associated with the desire to stay with the company. That same report cites iOpener Institute’s study of 18,000 Gen Y members that shows a sense of purpose in one’s work is a stronger predictor than pay as to whether they will stay at a company and recruit their friends.

Patty McCord, former chief talent officer at Netflix, shares a similar sentiment in a her HBR article, “Meaningful Work Beats Over-the-Top Perks Every Time.” In it, she recalls a visit to a Bay area startup that offered cocktails from a private bartender every day at 3 pm. Startups are notorious for offering over-the-top perks to compete for talent.

And yet, she writes, “the startups that I’d bet on to succeed…are not the ones where people are lying in hammocks drinking the craft beer du jour. They’re the ones where people are going to work because they get to collaborate with great colleagues on important products. Perks are nice, but meaningful work is better.”

There’s that word again—meaning.

How to drive meaning to sustain happiness and well-being

Start with gratitude.

In a recent article published in The Greater Good, Elizabeth Hopper cites a new letter writing study by Daryl Van Tongeren and his colleagues. They wanted to see whether expressing gratitude could cause participants to report a greater sense of meaning. Hopper explains:

Some participants wrote letters of gratitude to someone who had impacted their lives, while some participants wrote about other topics. The researchers found that participants who wrote gratitude letters subsequently reported that their lives were more meaningful than did other participants.

Van Tongeren’s research further suggests that the reason prosocial behavior increases our sense of meaning is because it enhances our relationships.

Hopper cites another study from The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in which, “participants were either allowed to choose to give money to someone else in the study, or told by the researchers how much money to give. For those who freely chose how much to give, giving more money was related to higher well-being and to feeling their their psychological needs were met.”

Based on this research, Hopper concludes that “helping others is beneficial because it fulfills basic human needs—and that altruism may be especially important for strengthening our relationships and connecting us with others.”

Here are 3 ways you can add altruism and meaning to your workplace, adapted from The Greater Good and Great Place to Work.

  1. Create reminders of connectedness. When people are reminded of human connection, they behave more altruistically. The Greater Good recommends making shared values visible around the office. Share photos of warmth and friendship at work.
  2. Recognize employees’ contributions. This is #6 on Great Place to Work’s 7 Ways to Connect Employees to Purpose. “Whether it’s via birthday or anniversary celebrations, a personal thank you card, kudos at a staff meeting, or a high-class celebratory gala, the recognition and appreciation of employees is important to the understanding that they—as a person and as an employee—make a difference to the company.”
  3. Share recognition best practices. Some people might need a refresher (or two) on how to give and write meaningful recognition. Share the Manager’s Field Guide to Recognition or this post on how to say ‘thank you’ to a peer.

Discover more ways to add humanity and meaning to your organization at WorkHuman this May and use code WH16BLOG300 to receive $300 off your registration.

3 Ways to Build Meaning Into Your Workplace #workhuman
Click To Tweet


In Search of Happiness at Work

The Essential Link Between Happiness and Gratitude

Happiness, Flow and How to Be a Better Leader

Re-Humanizing Management: Q+A with Dr. Gary Hamel (Part 3)

The New Science of Stress

Previous Article
The Antidote to Always-On Work Culture
The Antidote to Always-On Work Culture

With a background in HR and organizational development, WorkHuman Speaker Rasmus Hougaard shares the busine...

Next Article
True Grit: Q+A with Caroline Adams Miller
True Grit: Q+A with Caroline Adams Miller

WorkHuman speaker Caroline Adams Miller shares tips for giving effective praise, the opposite of grit, and ...