It's a gift when work is so meaningful that you'd do it for free. And that's also a problem.
I think of myself as a champion for meaningful work. I strive for it in my life, I try to help my children figure out what kind of work would be meaningful for them, and I support my partner in developing her work the way that makes her feel most fulfilled. As a researcher, I study meaning and I’ve written dozens of papers on the subject. I’ve found that work becomes meaningful when you are using the best of yourself to strive toward a purpose, which creates both a sense of personal fulfillment and positive outcomes in the world around you.
Indeed, studies show that people are happier, healthier, more engaged, more committed, and better-performing when their work is meaningful to them. These results seem to hold true whether you are working as a nurse or a custodian, whether you lead an international charity or Fortune 500 company, or whether you work in a warehouse fulfillment center or a school. If that work is your meaningful work, you tend to benefit from it.
So, it’s mostly good for our labors to be meaningful. However, my research journey has led to an unexpected insight: There is a downside.
Meaningful work, in a sense, is where the work itself is rewarding and worth doing—regardless of pay. And that’s the downside.
Those who find their work to be most meaningful—those who are most driven, most passionate, most committed, most fulfilled by what they do—are working for reasons much loftier than their paycheck. They know that what they do matters, is important, and is very much worth the bumps and stumbles along the way.
Unfortunately for them, other players in the economy know this, too.
When meaning leads to burnout
People driven by meaningful work are always stepping up to new challenges and stepping in to fill gaps. They are not the ones who say “not my problem,” or “that’s not what I’m paid to do.” They refill the printer, unclog the office sink, volunteer to organize the retreat, and bring real food instead of a bag of bagel crisps.
And, many times, rather than being rewarded for their commitment, they find that their organizations just absorb their extra effort, and begin to rely on it through investing less in the kinds of labor and resources that would normally do what their most committed workers volunteer to do.
Some managers and organizations notice that some people feel called and devoted to some jobs: to digging deep, concocting workarounds, sacrificing, and doing whatever is necessary to fulfill the mission of their work. Ideally, organizations would recognize and reward the vital role such workers play, but so many of the incentives driving business decisions push in the opposite direction. If meaning is an important incentive for doing work, then maybe less money is needed to incentivize people.
If you sometimes think you’d do your job for free, well, many companies and institutions are willing to give you the chance!
Our broader economy echoes this idea of a “meaning compensation package.” When I ask people to list jobs they think are meaningful, I hear the same jobs pop up over and over: Nursing, teaching, social work, childcare, elder care, being a physician, being a foster parent, working for the environment, pushing for social justice across the political spectrum.
There are a couple of themes to these jobs. They tend to be selfless, where people are working on behalf of the vulnerable or the injured or those entities, be they human or animal or ecosystem, that cannot advocate for themselves. They are noble.
But, if I were to create a list of jobs where burnout is very high and pay is insufficient to meet daily living needs, the list would look alarmingly similar to the list of meaningful jobs. We periodically express collective concern over this unfairness—but I think many of us recognize that we ask people to trade wealth and material comfort for meaning in our economy.
How to protect yourself from the downside
What can you do if you find yourself in the position of being so motivated and driven to do deeply meaningful work that you keep absorbing cutbacks, widening responsibility, larger caseloads, and more late nights; making do with insufficient resources; or using your own money to close gaps in what your organization used to provide? I have three suggestions for you.
1. Recognize that meaningful work can be a renewable resource, but not if only withdrawals are made
You can think about meaningful work as an underground aquifer. Aquifers are the huge subterranean lakes of fresh water that can lie underneath even inhospitable landscapes. If you’ve ever flown over the American Great Plains and wondered what those green circles are in the middle of dusty brown fields, they are the areas of an otherwise desert-like environment that are irrigated from underground aquifers.
Meaningful work is like that, nurturing flourishing in even the most difficult environments. You drill your hole into an aquifer and, like a miracle, water seems to flow and keep flowing. Similarly, when you tap into meaningful work, like magic, motivation and well-being seem to flow.
However, both aquifers and meaningful work can be depleted if we take out too much more than we put in. To sustain a meaningful life through meaningful work, you need to be able to invest back into that resource. It is not selfish to take breaks, say no, ask for greater support, or even step away from a job that has you constantly drawing on your aquifer of meaning but doesn’t give you the chance to replenish.
Ultimately, you will be able to contribute more to the passions you care about if you tend to yourself and your hidden supply of meaning.
You very literally cannot do everything, so you need to draw a line somewhere. Draw it where you are still able to replenish yourself.
2. Strive for work-life harmony
We need to recognize how the 24/7 work cycle has knocked all notions of work-life balance out of whack and instead think about harmony.
I learned about this idea some years ago when I was doing some work in Singapore. I was told that at some high-up official level, the concept of work-life balance had been trashed in favor of work-life harmony. Balance requires the ability to put things in separate spots. Work goes here, kids go there, partner goes there, parents, well, let’s just see; fitness goes way over there, volunteering, friends, pets, travel, learning, each in its separate spot so that it all balances. And then you get an urgent text while you’re lacing up your running shoes and it all comes crashing down. Even if we could achieve balance, should we want to? If work is meaningful to you, you are bringing your authentic self to work, operating within your values, and putting effort toward creating the kind of world you want to see come to life. Why should you stop caring about that stuff at 5 p.m.?
Thinking about work-life harmony instead lets us think about how different aspects of our lives can best work together, rather than how we can figure out how to swap in and out of different roles. Like an orchestra going through its warmups, disharmony can sound weird, unpleasant, and disorienting. The horns are running scales over there, the percussion is banging away, violins and cellos are warbling in and out of tune, and the bassoon is getting ready for some serious bassooning. Then the conductor walks up and raises her baton, and everything fits together in beautiful layers of harmony, instruments rising to the fore and fading gracefully to the background as time flows through the musical piece.
One source of strain and burnout that can plague people driven by meaningful work is the never-ending string of requests for sacrifices from the rest of our lives in order to squeeze just a bit more work in. The orchestra of our lives falls into disarray and the sounds of all the other instruments get drowned out by that bellowing bassoon.
Work should feed the rest of your life; the rest of your life should feed work. No cannibalism allowed.
So, consider whether work is creating disharmony. It is in your best interests, and ultimately in the best interests of all the other aspects of your life, to look for ways they can all play beautifully together. Many of the resources offered through the Greater Good Science Center can help you develop the skills to move closer to harmony through mindfulness, empathy, better relationships, and other approaches.
3. Be open to joining collective action
This is a personal opinion of mine, to tell the truth. A lot of the stress and difficulty we face isn’t caused by our individual actions alone. Our work is shaped by huge shifts and trends that dwarf us in scale: the collapse of our planet’s climate, automation in the workforce, toxic social media, political conflict, compressed profit cycles, skyrocketing housing costs, city planning that serves cars rather than people. All of these factors can affect us personally but there isn’t anything we can do about it all alone.
As a positive psychologist, I work to create tools and insights to help people cope with challenges in their lives and to achieve the goals they seek, but despite the need for such things, these sorts of individually-focused resources are part of a broader shift in which more and more responsibility for navigating life is put on each individual’s shoulders.
It probably feels pretty isolated to be a teacher trying to scrape together enough money to buy supplies for your classroom, or a nurse struggling to find enough time and energy to think about your health as much as other people’s health, or a social worker who is constantly interrupting your personal social interactions to try to rally supportive services for clients.
However, if you’re one of those people doing meaningful work and starting to see a terrible cost in your life, you aren’t alone. I am sure it feels that way, but there are a lot of us who want to provide support. We often just don’t know how. And there are a lot of people in the same boat as you. Joining together to share stories and support can be healing.
But even more, if we want good people to continue to do the vital work of nurturing, educating, and caring for the most vulnerable among us, then as a collective we need to be more realistic about what that means. It means that we should advocate for better working conditions, a more equitable share of our economy, and more protections against being undersupplied and undersupported. It means we all need to consider ways of working together regardless of job title or prestige because all work should be meaningful.
We shouldn’t have to choose between making a living and having a meaningful life.
Michael F. Steger, PhD, is Founder and Director of the Center for Meaning and Purpose, and Professor of Psychology, Colorado State University. He is also the Chief Scientific Officer of the Meaningful Work Lab, headquartered in Bristol, UK.