Finding meaning in work

03.11.2019#Working Life

Public discussion regarding work has been changing drastically in recent years. In addition to salaries and career prospects, today we also place emphasis on how meaningful we feel the work to be. Organisational psychologist Jaakko Sahimaa, who specialises in the meaningfulness of work, has done his part to advance this conversation.

Even though the meaningfulness of work has been a more frequently discussed topic as of late, defining the term is no simple task. Meaningfulness in itself is a multifaceted phenomenon that manifests itself individually and is dependent on many factors.

“The meaningfulness of work is affected both by personal and social factors. You must be able to be yourself and utilise your expertise at your job to a meaningful degree. On the social level, a feeling of solidarity is important, and the values of the organisation and the employee must align”, says Sahimaa. “When these factors come together, the work feels pleasant and motivating.”

Searching for meaningfulness

Because of his profession, Sahimaa has had a front row seat in witnessing how the meaningfulness of work has become more and more emphasized. “At the moment people in western countries live in a kind of meaning vacuum. Societal institutions and values – home, God and country – no longer provide meaning the way that they used to. This is why many people search for it elsewhere, in their work, for example”, he says. “The big questions of our age are also a factor. Environmental crises have shown that material well-being no longer adds to people’s mental well-being. It is therefore only natural to think about what we should strive towards next.”

According to Sahimaa, the search for meaningfulness begins with self reflection. Landing a meaningful job by chance is always possible, but often it requires charting one’s own values and goals. “Recognising your values plays a very central role. It is good to stop every once in a while to think about what you want out of your work and your life. Here you can make use of the literature about the topic and different tools, such as the value compass”, says Sahimaa. “You should also remember that often a person’s career is shaped by working – through trial and error.”

However, students are often hard-pressed to find work that completely matches their values or expertise right from the start. At first they might have to compromise on their goals. Here Sahimaa reminds us that meaningfulness can be found in any kind of work. “You can always fine-tune your own work and its aspects to be more to your liking. In practice this means pondering on and adapting your work methods, attitude and the social relationships in the work community so that they serve to increase your motivation. By putting in personal effort, any job can become meaningful.”

No reason to worry

Work doesn’t always have to be meaningful. The role of work can change over the course of one’s life. For example, a student may take their first job simply to make some money – and this is perfectly natural. Sahimaa also has encouragement for those who feel that meaningful work and clearly defined values are merely distant dreams. “If you feel that your thoughts are a complete tangled mess, you should work on them with another person, such as a friend or a professional. There isn’t a knot that cannot be untangled.”

Sahimaa also has some other tips for those looking for sense and meaningfulness. “At first you could try to identify at least one thing that brings you joy. Recognising and maintaining little joys is one aspect of finding meaningfulness in life. It is also important to remember that you are in no hurry with these things. Life is a continuous journey of learning, and you are allowed to get totally lost every once in a while. It happens to me too, even though I am an expert in the field”, Sahimaa says with a laugh.


Text: Lassi Linnola

Photo: Getty Images


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