The concept of “meaningful work” isn’t something that’s found or discovered. It’s created over time through people and organizations with similar values to create meaning over time, said U. of I. labor expert Teresa Cardador in a presentation to the University of Illinois Board of Trustees.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Because I study careers and meaning, I’m often asked, “How do I find meaningful work?”
Finding meaningful work is an issue that affects higher education because students want college to put them on a path to meaningful careers.
In particular, I hear this a lot from students.
It’s an issue that affects higher education because students want college to put them on a path to meaningful careers. However, faculty members and staff are often looking for answers to the same question.
Students and employees are told to “find something you are passionate about,” “find something you enjoy,” or “find something that makes a difference.” In other words, “find meaningful work” by … finding meaningful work.
The real question is, “How do you get there?”
What my research shows, and what I have learned through my own career, is that meaningful work is not simply something you go out and find like an egg at an Easter egg hunt. It’s something co-created, over time, by individuals and the organizations they work in.
The truth is, I can relate to the students who ask me how to find meaningful work. Before pursuing my Ph.D. and taking my position at Illinois, I spent 10 years working outside of academia, and spent a lot of that time searching for work meaningfulness.
When I graduated with my master’s in public health, I chose a career in the service sector with the primary goal of having a positive impact. Like students today, I wanted my work to be meaningful. And sometimes it was. I led initiatives and organizations that helped improve access to health care for women and children. I helped people in remote areas gain better access to medical providers.
The work was challenging, interesting and a significant part of my identity.
I was developing expertise, but because I mostly worked with medical doctors, I sometimes felt that my expertise was less valued and less recognized. Also, I worked in organizations whose mission seemed more about making money than improving lives.
So, even though I had found work that I was passionate about – work that seemed to satisfy the definition of meaningful work – my job often didn’t feel meaningful. This was less about the work itself and more about the organizations and contexts in which I performed my work.
Cardador doctoral hooding in 2009.
When I decided to go back to school for my doctorate, I wanted to pursue questions informed by my work experiences. What contributes to work meaningfulness? What gets in the way? How do people navigate their careers to create meaning in their professional lives?
Given these interests, and the fact that my husband was already on the faculty here, I chose to go back to school for my doctorate and study organizational behavior in the College of Business.
In my academic career, my research has sought to answer a number of questions about meaningful work and careers.
My research shows what my younger self experienced but did not yet understand. In particular, much of my work points to an important role for organizations both in fostering and undermining meaningful work.
In one study, my colleagues and I showed that employees seeking meaningfulness want to commit themselves not just to their work but also to their organizations.
But committing to one’s organization was predicated on employees being able to see the organization’s practices and social mission as a fit with their goals and values. In other words, employees become more committed when they see their workplaces as enabling them to fulfill personally meaningful goals and values.
In other studies of organizations and unions, my research shows that organizations with supportive cultures – those that foster belongingness, connection, teamwork and trust – foster a greater sense of meaningfulness and organizational attachment.
My work also shows how organizational contexts may undermine a sense of meaningfulness by devaluing certain forms of work.
We have found that women in engineering often enter the field because of their technical interests and then get fast- tracked into management sometimes because these roles are perceived to fit with their people skills.
However, our results across multiple studies show that women in these roles experience lower levels of identification with their colleagues, lower work meaningfulness and greater risk of turnover. This is because managerial roles are devalued in engineering, and because women in these roles weaken their connection to the technical skills that are an important part of the identity of engineering profession.
Conclusions from my research say that meaningfulness can be fostered by organizations that enable employees to excel in their work, that provide supportive environments to do so and that value the unique roles performed by all employees.
You might ask me now whether I’ve found meaningful work here at the University of Illinois, and I’m happy to report that the answer is yes – but let me tell you why that is, based on my research.
Labor and Employment Relations faculty photo collage.
At the School of Labor and Employment Relations, I get to do impactful interdisciplinary work with colleagues who are doing research helping to make work and organizations better for employees.
The faculty and leadership at LER also cultivate a strong sense of community. We often refer to ourselves as the LER “family.”
LER has allowed me to do actionable research in a context with colleagues who support and enjoy each other.
LER faculty and staff photo collage.
Illinois has fostered my sense of meaning by having policies that show they value my family and me.
When I graduated with my Ph.D. in 2009, my kids were in and nearing middle school and my husband was already a full professor in the psychology department. We didn’t want to leave Illinois and our connections here, and when I was hired into the Dual Career Couples program on the tenure track, it make our decision to stay easy.
Cardador family photo collage.
Illinois has afforded my husband and me the chance to do challenging, impactful work while raising two beautiful children who now have both have their own meaningful connections to Illinois.
My oldest daughter, now a college senior, graduated from University Laboratory High. And my youngest daughter is now a freshman at the U. of I. majoring in architecture.
Illinois has invested in us, and we have invested in Illinois.
In many ways, my journey to Illinois was about my own search for meaningful work.
“In many ways, my journey to Illinois was about my own search for meaningful work.
“Thanks to the U. of I. and my colleagues in LER, I not only study meaningful work, I am now also a beneficiary of it.”
Thanks to the U. of I. and my colleagues in LER, I not only study meaningful work, I am now also a beneficiary of it.
So how do I answer that question from my students about finding meaningful work?
I say you don’t simply find meaningful work. You create it over time by building the expertise that allows you to have a personal impact; by finding organizations with people you can connect with and invest in – and who are willing to do the same for you – so that you can align your skills with the advancement of topics and communities that matter to you.