All work can be meaningful, but it depends on the individual. A job becomes meaningful work when the person doing it considers it valuable and appreciated.

In other words, you don’t have to be a committed activist or succeed in curing cancer in order to make your work count – no matter what the task. What matters, according to research, is one key element: mindfulness.

What will I read about in this article?


What do we mean by mindfulness?

The practice of awareness or mindfulness consists of a full and intentional attention to one’s own experience. It means wanting to be present in the present. It means being deliberately awake.

We can easily find dozens of inspirational quotes on the power of mindfulness. Practising this exercise – whether towards oneself, others or at work – always has rewards, as it enables access to previously unattended sensory information. This allows us to amplify the clarity and sharpness with which we see the world (and our work), helping us to better understand what’s happening and our potential contribution.


How does the application of mindfulness help us?

Evgenia I. Lysova, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and other colleagues, explored the relationship between mindfulness and the perception of meaningful work following the Lips-Wiersma and Morris model, considering four possible pathways:

* It promotes authenticity: mindfulness allows us to be aware of both one’s surroundings (external environment) and oneself (internal environment). This expanded awareness can facilitate personal development and “becoming oneself”. When this happens, we tend to perceive work as meaningful as it allows us to develop, and to be who we are.

* Promotes talent: mindfulness allows us to express our full potential. Academic literature shows that people with mindfulness perform better, protecting themselves against distractions and errors and facilitating the expression of their potential and talent. This expression of one’s potential is linked to the feeling of enjoying meaningful work, as work allows one’s potential to be exploited.

* It promotes understanding of others. Mindfulness leads to increased sensitivity, and this sensitivity is also related to a greater understanding of the needs of others. This is why people with mindfulness tend to serve others more and better, contributing to a greater perception of meaningful work.

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* It promotes unity with others. Understanding and helping others strengthens the bonds, fostering greater unity among team members. This sense of unity facilitates the perception of enjoying meaningful work.


Exploring the Connection between Mindfulness and Meaningful Work: An Empirical Study

Lysova and her colleagues set out to empirically understand the relationship between mindfulness and meaningful work described above. To do so, they conducted two studies.


Study 1, on meaningful work

In the first study (Study 1) they selected participants from four different settings:

  1. employees of the UK healthcare system
  2. local employees of a Dutch municipality
  3. teachers at a small school in Dubai
  4. Dutch fitness instructors.

This study, which involved 90 participants, consisted of completing a weekly diary for six weeks during which their level of mindfulness, their perception of meaningful work, and their cognitive flexibility, understood as the ability to adapt to new situations, were recorded.

The results of Study 1 showed that mindfulness was related to the perception of meaningful work. That is, the higher the level of reported mindfulness, the higher the perception of meaningful work. More specifically, mindfulness was linked to three of the previously mentioned dimensions (expression of talent, understanding of others, and unity with others), but not to authenticity (becoming oneself). In addition, the study also revealed that cognitive flexibility was a mediator between mindfulness and meaningful work also in three of the four elements.

This first study confirmed a strong relationship between attentional state and perception of meaningful work. However, it remained to be discovered which elements of the work environment could facilitate this connection.


Study 2, beyond mindfulness: the attention of others

To address this question, the researchers conducted an intervention (Study 2) in which participants from three organisations (a UK government department, a defence and security company, and a financial company) were asked to enter for 10-15 minutes into a state of mindfulness and reflect on significant events in their jobs by distinguishing a) the feelings experienced because of the event, and b) the reasons why the event was experienced as significant.

The results revealed that participants who did this imposed reflection exercise found that most of the reasons they perceived their work as meaningful was through others. It was the others who made them realise the value and meaning of their work. More specifically, study 2 presented three ways in which one identified one’s work as meaningful through signals sent by others. These signals were divided into:

  • Signals of value: these signals include all those references by others that highlight the value of our work, whether in electronic communications or at public events.
  • Signs of appreciation: these signals comprise all those interactions with others where they express their thanks and appreciation for the work done.
  • Signs of caring: these signs include all those interactions in which one feels cared for in one’s environment, and perceives the possibility to communicate openly and honestly.

These findings from Study 2 are more important than it seems, as the perception of meaningful work does depend not only on oneself, but emerges relationally, i.e. when one perceives that others value, appreciate and care for both the employee and the work performed. Therefore, both studies have implications for organisations and for the employees themselves:

  • Organisations could encourage weekly individual reflection times, where they reflect on the significant events they have experienced and the reasons why.
  • Also, organisations could develop new ways of sharing these signals (value, appreciation and care) to team members, as they’re essential in the perception of meaningful work.
  • Employees could impose moments of mindfulness on themselves that allow them to understand their contribution to the organisation.
  • Employees could send signals of value, appreciation and care to colleagues as well, knowing the positive implications they have.