Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.
Theodore Roosevelt, September 7, 1903
Teddy Roosevelt’s assertion in a Labor Day speech 99 years ago still rings true this holiday; worthwhile labor can greatly enrich human life. Our research found that people’s everyday work lives are greatly enriched when they make progress at work that they find meaningful. But what makes work worth doing?
Sometimes it’s obvious. No one would question whether trying to cure disease is worth doing. The same goes for inventing and making products that enhance people’s lives. But is all work worthwhile? Our own research focused on knowledge workers — highly educated people doing creative work and solving complex problems. As a result, readers often ask whether our findings apply to workers in the service industries or manual laborers. We believe they do apply, but only when workers feel that they are making a contribution to something or someone they value.
Chip Conley, the founder of the successful boutique hotel chain Joie de Vivre, eloquently makes this point in a TED Talk. Conley describes a housekeeper — an immigrant from Vietnam named Vivian — who worked in the first hotel that he purchased. Somehow, she managed to find joy and fulfillment in her work. How is that possible in work that involves making other people’s beds and cleaning their toilets? According to Conley, Vivian found great satisfaction in the emotional connection that she made with her coworkers and the guests of the hotel. She found joy in making people who were away from home comfortable, because she knew what it was like to be far away from home. Vivian found work that was worth doing and, like most hotel housekeepers, she worked hard at it.
We, too, have seen how meaning can make work that might seem dull or repetitive rich and rewarding. When one of us (Teresa) went to get an annual blood test, she noticed that the woman who was about to draw her blood was smiling broadly. Teresa remarked, “You certainly look happy today.” The phlebotomist replied that she was happy, because there were lots of tubes lined up waiting to be filled with blood; that meant that she would be drawing lots of blood. No, she was not some kind of sadist. Rather, she went on to explain that the vast majority of illnesses are first detected by simple blood tests, and having lots of test tubes lined up meant that she had the opportunity to help lots of people.
Sadly, too many people seem to find the work they do unfulfilling. As a result, they are disengaged and less productive than they might be. If you are a leader, you can help change that by doing two things. First, make sure that the work you give employees actually serves a purpose for someone or something they value. Second, make sure that employees understand how their own everyday actions contribute to that goal.
Adam Grant, of the Wharton School, studied workers at a call center raising money for student scholarships. This work can be particularly frustrating because only a small minority of calls lead to contributions. Grant assigned the workers to three experimental groups. In one, the workers heard a student speak about how the scholarship money had helped him. A second group simply received letters of thanks from students, while the third group had no contact with the students who benefited from the fundraising. The results were astonishing. After one month, call center workers who had heard the student speak more than doubled the calls they were making and tripled the amount of money they raised. In contrast, there was no change in the other two groups. Making a personal connection with a real person who benefited from their work allowed the call center workers to feel the true worth of their efforts; that contact put a real face to the fruits of their labor.
If you are a leader, be creative in considering ways to help your employees see the impact of their work on others. This Labor Day, make sure they know that their work is worth doing.