• DATE September 24, 2015
  • URL oneinstitute.com/tile/meaningful-work/

Meaningful Work

Rethinking what drives us to do good work

A few Sundays ago there was a fascinating opinion piece in the New York Times titled “Rethinking Work.” Written by Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College and author of the new book Why We Work, the column argues that the prevailing approach to work – one characterized by the author as “cynical” and “pessimistic” – is making us unsatisfied with our jobs . . . and it’s making us worse at them.

“Work is structured on the assumption that we do it only because we have to,” Schwartz writes. “The call center employee is monitored to ensure that he ends each call quickly. The office worker’s keystrokes are overseen to guarantee productivity.”

This approach, Schwartz frankly argues, needs to change. As human beings and as workers, we’re not merely “wage-driven idlers,” he says. That’s not what drives us. Rather, we want to be challenged by our work. We want to be engaged in what we’re doing. We want to be able to “exercise some discretion.” We want opportunities to mature as professionals and as people. We want workplaces characterized by mutual respect, and perhaps above all, we want work that is meaningful.

This is all well and good, you may be thinking, but what about those who clean toilets for a living? What about those who make phone calls on behalf of university alumni associations? What about those who serve up your french fries?

“I submit that they, too, are looking for something more than wages,” Schwartz writes. Across the board, he goes on to say, studies show that “when given the chance to make their work meaningful and engaging, employees jump at it, even if it means that they have to work harder.”

This is not to say that compensation is unimportant or that workers should not be paid fairly for the value they provide. On the contrary, as Christians we believe that every human person is created in the image of God, and therefore worthy of respect and dignity. We are created to work with the gifts God has given us, but work that demoralizes – by underpaying or objectifying the worker – is a perversion of God’s good intention for our world.

For what it’s worth, the numbers seem to back up the idea that the prevailing approach is bankrupt – morally and otherwise. Schwartz cites Stanford organizational behavior professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, whose research has shown that “workplaces that offered employees work that was challenging, engaging and meaningful, and over which they had some discretion, were more profitable than workplaces that treated employees as cogs in a production machine.

People want to do meaningful work, and businesses that make this a priority reap real dividends. Even better, when businesses thrive they create wealth and opportunity that benefits people beyond their payroll.

“Work that is adequately compensated is an important social good,” Schwartz writes. “But so is work that is worth doing. Half of our waking lives is a terrible thing to waste.”