Cultivating meaningful work for your employees 

Three women walking through an office corridor, engaged in a lively conversation.

Cultivating meaningful work for your employees 

The pursuit of meaning and purpose in life is one that almost everyone can relate to. Indeed, more and more employees today are looking for work that is personally meaningful. It’s an important feature of any job, as research shows that people are more motivated to work, happy and engaged at work, and have enhanced work performance when their work is meaningful. Work is not just about making a pay cheque anymore. People are looking for meaningful work, and they are willing to seek out other employers in the pursuit to find it. With this in mind, it is more important now than ever for companies to support their employees to find meaning in the work they do so they can thrive. 

What is meaningful work? 

Meaningful work provides the worker with personal meaning, purpose, and significance. Typically, the work aligns with the values of the worker, cultivating in them a sense of purpose which drives motivation. One may think this only applies to careers in a helping profession, such as in healthcare or teaching, where workers may derive purpose by helping patients and students. However, research shows that that all jobs can be meaningful because meaning lies in the eyes of the worker. 

There has been a breadth of research identifying many factors that facilitate meaningful work. For the purpose of this post, we will use the Person-Environment-Occupation (PEO) model from occupational therapy to guide our understanding of the factors at play. The PEO model consists of three primary elements: 

  • The person domain includes personality, motivation, skills, knowledge, authenticity, values, cultural background, and self-concept.  
  • The environment domain includes physical, cultural, organizational, social, and economic environments.  
  • The occupation domain includes the type, quality, amount of work, and job design

The PEO model suggests that performance depends on the dynamic interactions between the three domains of person, environment, and occupation, and the “fit” between factors of the three domains. 

To illustrate these factors, let’s consider a case study involving a fictional employee, Shelby.  

Shelby, 35, is a senior consultant at a big accounting firm. When she started as an intern with the firm, she felt excited about the prospects of accounting, her career trajectory, and working with her fellow classmates and best friends. Twelve years later, she is still hardworking and persistent, but feels overworked, underappreciated, and stagnant. Her work is no longer meaningful and she is no longer happy at work. During a conversation with her colleagues, she expressed the following concerns:  

  • Immense pressure to meet unreasonable deadlines.  
  • Being assigned multiple projects that are outside of her job description.   
  • Having to work through her lunch break and extra hours after work, for which she does not get compensated. 
  • Limited opportunities to socialize with her colleagues over lunch or in passing, which used to be one of her favourite parts of work.   
  • Her day to day tasks feel meaningless, tedious, and boring. Six months ago, her manager agreed to include her in projects that align with her interests but that has not come to fruition. 
  • Exhaustion from her work day prevents her from taking care of and connecting with her children and family.   
  • She feels unmotivated, unhappy, disengaged, and disconnected from her work and personal life.

Using the PEO model, we can see that Shelby is hardworking, resilient, and outgoing. She enjoys socializing and collaborating, which she currently has limited opportunities to do. She has accounting skills and enjoys being appropriately challenged, but these skills and needs are not being employed with her current work tasks. Psychologically, she feels unhappy with both her work and personal life, and has low motivation to work.  

Within her environment, she is feeling overworked, without adequate support or appreciation. Her company, which claims to value innovation, collaboration, and community, is not cultivating a supportive culture. Socially, she feels disconnected from her colleagues and family. Economically, she is not receiving compensation for the overtime hours she works. 

Occupationally, her projects are outside of her scope and interests, and not challenging enough for her skill set and strengths. Her tasks feel meaningless and unimportant, as she cannot see how it relates to the bigger picture. Despite trying to create opportunities for herself by requesting alternate projects from her manager, she does feel she has that autonomy.  

Using the PEO model, let’s explore some potential solutions Shelby’s manager can implement to increase the sense of meaning in Shelby’s work. 

To improve the person x occupation fit, Shelby’s manager can: 

  • As much as possible, give Shelby some autonomy over her job tasks and responsibilities. When employees are empowered with a sense of personal autonomy and influence at work, they are more likely to find their work meaningful. 
  • Collaborate with Shelby to find projects and tasks that allow her to use her strengths and interests, are adequately challenging, have variety, and fulfil her job mission. When an employee has a variety of adequately challenging job tasks that align with their strengths and interests, they are more likely to find their work meaningful. This is a collaborative and iterative process that can be completed at regular intervals. 

To improve the person x environment fit, Shelby’s manager can: 

  • Foster a culture of healthy, supportive, trust-based, and respectful relationships between colleagues. When employees experience community and belonging, work becomes more meaningful. This can be cultivated by encouraging employees to take breaks, organizing regular team-building events and volunteer opportunities, and designing physical spaces to promote community such as open concept offices or communal lunch rooms. 
  • Be clear about and authentically express the organization’s values and mission throughout the organizational culture and practices. Ensuring that all aspects of the organization are aligned will bolster meaningful work.  

To improve the environment x occupation fit, Shelby’s manager can: 

  • Create more opportunities to collaborate with others. Shelby enjoys working with others, thus collaborative projects will naturally be more meaningful than independent work.  
  • Draw connections between Shelby’s work and the larger mission of the organization. Being able to clearly illustrate how Shelby’s work fits into the bigger picture of the organization can reinforce the meaningfulness of her work. 
  • Ensure that Shelby has access to decent work. Decent work consists of safe physical and interpersonal working conditions, reasonable hours and workload that allows for free time and adequate rest, and adequate compensation and appreciation. 

By following these steps to improve the “fit” between an employee’s person, environment, and occupation factors, a manager can foster meaningful work for their employees. This approach not only produces thriving employees, who feel motivated, happy, engaged, and committed at work, but also offers competitive advantages. When employees are motivated, satisfied, and engaged, they go above and beyond for their company, which translates into heightened productivity, better retention, and reduced absenteeism. Thus, it is essential, for organizational success, for workplaces to invest in fostering meaningful work for their employees. 

Valerie Lo 
Student Occupational Therapist


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