Think beyond the paycheck. 

By Liz Steelman
Updated June 03, 2016
Image Source/Getty Images

For some, work is merely eight, long hours out of their day. But for the lucky ones, it’s considered time well spent. According to new research published in the MIT Sloan Management Review, what separates meaningful work from just punching a clock is no longer a mystery—it’s a combination of connecting with others and time.

Researchers from from the University of Sussex interviewed 135 different workers from 10 different careers, from priests to garbage collectors. They asked each person to reflect upon moments when they found their work meaningful, and other times when they asked themselves “What’s the point of doing this job?”

According to the responses, engagement, commitment, or even great benefits wasn't what made work feel significant. Instead, meaning came from personal and individual situations that couldn’t be curated by leadership or HR. Workers felt their work was meaningful if it made them feel connected to a larger purpose, closer to their loved ones, and a sense of pride of a job well done. “In experiencing work as meaningful, we cease to be workers or employees and relate as human beings, reaching out in a bond of common humanity to others,” Katie Bailey, lead study author, said in a statement.

Here, the five identified factors that create meaningful work, according to the surveyed workers:

Image Source/Getty Images


Researchers found that when study participants talked about meaningful work, they didn’t focus on themselves. Instead, they talked about the individuals or groups the work would affect. For example, a garbage collector said the most meaningful part of his job is when the refuse is separated from recycling, since he knows it creates a cleaner environment for his grandchildren.


Work was most meaningful when workers were stretched to cope with challenging conditions that changed their worldviews. For example, a nurse said helping patients prepare to die was a sad, but highly profound part of her life.


Researchers point out that highly emotional experiences aren’t sustainable over time. Each person who felt his or her work was meaningful didn’t feel that way every day. Instead, certain moments in time stood out. For example a sales assistant said work was meaningful when a customer fainted while in the store. The clerk helped out until the customer became conscious again—a memorable moment that became symbolic for the work he did overall.


Though workers might recognize a moment as being particularly powerful, they are more likely to derive meaning from the experience once the work has been completed. Researchers say meaningfulness is most apparent upon reflection, when a person makes connections between their lives and their achievements.


Meaningful work isn’t the same as engaging or satisfying work. Researchers say the latter has more to do with day-to-day feelings about tasks, while meaningfulness occurs when a person feels connected to the workplace in more profound way. For example, monetary success isn't what made work meaningful for a surveyed entrepreneur—it was the fact that he started his own business to make his grandfather proud of him. Experiences become more meaningful, according to the study, when a job well done is recognized by people close to them and not an employer or manager.