Work with Meaning

Searching for a purpose in life is nothing new, but more and more of us are looking for a meaningful life at work. Rebecca Hoar finds out whether employers are really to blame for that Monday-to-Friday malaise. Case studies by Helen Kirwan-Taylor

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Stop for a minute. Think back to this morning. Did you leap up enthusiastically, eager to get to the office for another motivating day at work? Or did you shudder when the alarm clock went off, drag yourself out of bed and grimly prepare yourself for another round of what social anthropologist Studs Terkel called 'a Monday to Friday sort of dying'?

If you are a reluctant riser, you are not alone. A new survey by the Roffey Park management research and training institute has found that 70% of managers are looking for a greater sense of meaning in their working lives.

Nothing new, you might think. Man's search for meaning has absorbed humans since civilisation began.

What's interesting is that we've started searching for meaning in the workplace. In office blocks and industrial estates up and down the country, from the reception lobby to the executive suite, individuals are sitting at their desks and asking: 'What am I doing here?'

And, increasingly, they're not happy with the answer. Roffey Park quizzed 735 employees in its annual 'Management Agenda' survey, one of the most authoritative UK polls of its kind. Respondents are typically managers from all industries and age groups, ranging from junior managers to board directors.

The survey has been running for eight years. Recently, respondents' comments on the questionnaires have revealed a growing disillusionment at work and a desire to be doing something more meaningful. Roffey Park carried out focus groups and a survey to probe the area more deeply, and realised it had scratched the surface of something big.

In addition to the 70% of managers searching for more meaning at work, 42% say they are considering a job move in the next 12 months. Eight out of 10 respondents say it's personally important to them that their companies are environmentally and socially responsible, yet more than half (52%) are sceptical about their company's value statements. Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that 39% say they experience tension between the 'spiritual' aspect of their values and their daily work.

Roffey Park focus groups also unearthed varying definitions of 'meaning'.

For some it's about personal values and ideals, for others it's spiritual beliefs or personal fulfilment.

The quest for meaning is not limited to those surveyed. When MI5 advertised for new recruits recently - on a starter salary of just £20,000 - thousands of high-flyers applied. An MI5 official commented in The Times: 'They seem genuinely to want to do something to help this country instead of going for a job with a much higher salary.'

Other research backs this up. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation described Generation X as depressed, and other research has identified the TIREDs - Thirty-something, Independent, Radical, Educated Dropouts - people with good prospects quitting their high-flying jobs to do something more meaningful with their lives. Meanwhile, Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) has launched a recruitment programme targeting Britain's managers - apparently fertile ground for new helpers.

So what has brought on this national introspection? When did we decide that a good job and a stable salary couldn't satisfy our deeper needs?

It may be because we spend so much time at work. In the Roffey Park survey, 83% of managers consistently work longer hours than contracted, and it's well known that the British work the longest hours in Europe. The payoff is less time for other activities that might bestow a sense of meaning, whether spending time with family, doing volunteer work, travelling or learning a new skill.

Philip Hogan is a personal trainer who has branched out into holistic healthcare. He works with individual clients and runs The Last Resort, a programme that takes groups of executives on week-long hikes in remote corners of the world such as Scotland, the Himalayas and Iceland. Alcohol and cigarettes are banned, and executives are encouraged to take a hard look at their lives.

Says Hogan: 'There's so much dissatisfaction in executive circles. They're in the top 1% in terms of earning potential, but they're unhappy. Many are addicted to nicotine, alcohol, fat and sugar. They have no time for anything but work. Many of my clients have no hobbies. They work and go home.'

Adding to this pressure is the spectre of later retirement. Says John McLaren, a City banker who left his job to become an author: 'If you're 40, you're not yet halfway through your working life.' People will ask whether they want to spend the next half doing something 'meaningless'.

This work focus means that the office has become more central to our lives. We look to it to provide a sense of community and identity, we expect to make friends and meet partners there. Yet previous generations worked long hours, often in monotonous jobs in unpleas-ant conditions.

So don't we have it relatively easy? Or perhaps we have just become a lot more demanding.

According to Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at Kent university and author of Therapy Culture, higher expectations are pivotal. 'Increasingly, we regard work as being more than just work. People have always tried to find meaning in work, which is understandable. But work cannot meet all our needs.'

John Lees, a career coach and author of How to Get a Job You'll Love, echoes the view that higher expectations are partly to blame for the meaning gap. The media provides a steady diet of people actively changing their lives, whether building properties abroad, switching jobs or downshifting.

This coincides, says Lees, with a rise in expectations about work. Yet he also believes that companies play a part. As our expectations rise, he says, 'companies treat people less well than they used to'.

So is business to blame for our malaise? Perhaps our demanding employers have turned us into a nation of cynical Dilberts, counting the hours until we can go home.

To blame companies neatly sidesteps the issue of personal responsibility.

Yet the Roffey Park research shows a correlation between certain company practices and the increase in employees who feel their work lacks meaning.

These practices encourage longer hours, increased stress, lack of appreciation for individual effort, relentless focus on shareholders, managers who don't 'walk the talk', a lack of adherence to a company's stated values, such as corporate social responsibility, and companies that mismanage change.

Such bad practices are compounded by a growing employee cynicism, particularly following events such as the Enron and WorldCom scandals, and evidence of widespread fat-cattery. The Roffey Park research shows that 46% of managers say these events have made them more cynical, while nearly a quarter have lost trust in corporate leaders.

Roffey Park argues that a strong business case exists for helping employees find meaning. It believes that companies benefit by being able to manage change successfully, by having an increased ability to retain key staff, and by having greater employee engagement and performance. It also believes that employees who are absorbed in their work tend to be more productive, creative and committed.

The biggest risk for companies is that dissatisfied employees will quit their job. The survey shows, quite alarmingly, that employees with the biggest meaning gap are those in their twenties and thirties (82%). If this trend continues, employers may struggle to recruit and retain good employees at junior level.

Roffey Park has identified company practices that seem to enhance employees' sense of meaning. These include a strong customer focus, as opposed to focus on shareholders, clear job roles for individuals, flexible working practices and recognition by management of work well done. Businesses should give employees room to develop and grow within the company, and company managers should pay more than lip service to company values.

Companies that manage change effectively and that have clarity of purpose provide employees with a greater sense of meaning, as do companies where employees feel a sense of belonging - although this can be taken too far.

Apparently, some proud US employees at internet portal Yahoo! bear tattoos of the company logo as a sign of their loyalty.

A few UK companies have tried to redress the meaning gap by encouraging employees to take sabbaticals or to spend office time on charity work.

Arts and Kids is a new business founded to enable company workers to work with children and the arts with the blessing of their employer; its clients already include Unilever and Deutsche Bank. Goldman Sachs and Linklaters have asked Hogan to devise 'well programmes' for their executives.

Lord Stevenson, chairman of HBOS and Pearson, supports the ideas that employers can help. He is, he says, 'absolutely certain that employers should do more to make employees identify with their work'.

Yet it's also true that people are responsible for how they feel about their jobs. Says McLaren: 'People are more grown up. We don't have such a patriarchal relationship with a company. Companies can do nice things that make you feel valued, but that doesn't make it meaningful.' Rather, he says, it's up to the individual to make changes if they're not happy.

Hogan supports this line. 'I think a lot of people are unhappy because they're trapped in the wrong job,' he says. 'People are stressed because they can't see an exit route. They don't know when their next holiday is going to be. To be successful, you have to make a coherent plan and then go about achieving it. Clients always find excuses, but once they start, say, playing the piano, they begin to feel a change.'

What your plan is depends on individual needs and circumstances. Not everyone can afford to change their life completely, but there may be other solutions, even if it's just cutting down working hours to spend more time on other interests.

Perhaps Stevenson best sums it up when he says that although employers should do what they can, it's up to each individual to make the changes.

'It isn't entirely down to the employer. Each of us individually has to make our own deal with life, and work out what's best for us. I suspect that those who aren't happy are doing something that isn't right for them.'


Johnny Beveridge swapped his master-of-the-universe life in the City for one spent among the Masai in Kenya. Beveridge worked for Salomon Brothers between 1987 and 2000 as a managing director in emerging markets and fixed-income trading. He then joined Renaissance Capital as head of its equity products group, based in London and Moscow.

Last year, he decided he'd had enough of the City and made the momentous decision to move to Africa to work as a bush pilot. Having acquired his commercial pilot's licence, he now works for the Masai Wilderness Preservation Trust as a pilot and does volunteer work for the Kenyan Wildlife Service.

His Italian wife Lavinia and 10-month-old son Ludovico live in a tent on the grounds of the Chyulu Hills-based lodge, overlooking the slopes of Kilimanjaro.

The decision to leave banking had been building for some time. 'I had my first experience of flying around Africa when I was given a sabbatical from Salomon in 1996,' says Beveridge. 'I was extraordinarily lucky to be given the opportunity, as it taught me an important lesson: not to be afraid of taking a chance. I had been thinking and dreaming about it for some time, but I knew that if I didn't do it, I would regret it. By the time I decided to make a change, I was feeling stale and unmotivated, despite the money. I would look at myself in the mirror and say: "Who do you think you're fooling?"

'It didn't make sense to me any more. I don't regard this as calling it a day, as that implies that you leave one world and move into another. I think of myself as someone who is lucky enough to have a dream and to be with someone willing to let me try and live it.'

City hours, traffic and stress were all factors in Beveridge's decision.

'This lifestyle is not about materialism. It's not about competition. This is living in absolute paradise, doing something I find continually challenging. One day I am flying tourists to the coast, the next I am transporting potatoes or tracking collared lions. It's a totally bizarre, but totally meaningful job. My son has more Masai nannies than you can imagine. He doesn't know what a television looks like.'

Beveridge does not see this as a permanent lifestyle. 'Most people trap themselves into believing that every decision is final. But your friends will always be your friends and your clients will be your clients. If you pursue a dream, you come back more refreshed and positive. Employers should be grateful. My greatest fear is the phrase "It's too late".'


As the deputy editor of Channel Five news, Adrian Monck has what many would consider an exciting and fulfilling job. The 39-year-old is married to a fellow ITN producer and has two small children. Four years ago, after much deliberation, the family moved from Hackney to Kent and Monck asked to be able to co-ordinate childcare duties with his wife.

He now leaves work at 4.30pm twice a week to pick up his daughter from the childminder.

'I lived the job,' he recalls, 'Christmases on the road, birthdays missed, funerals unattended, weddings ducked out of. I always volunteered to go to difficult places. I covered the war in Yugoslavia. I was happy to put my life at risk.'

Changing his working life was the hardest thing Monck had ever had to do. 'I felt I was letting my employer down by asking for time off. It implied that I wasn't 100% committed to the job. People love to play the commitment card, but I think when you hit your mid-thirties something happens. It's not about lifestyle choices, it's about meaning.'

Continues Monck: 'In TV journalism, you get meaning through doing. Realising that the next story is never going to deliver that meaning, and that perhaps something as arduous and unglamorous as relationships and parenting might do was uncomfortable. The choice was simple: to go through the motions and be a theoretical family, or to put some time in and become a real family.'

According to Monck, being busy at work can easily distract you from looking at the bigger picture. 'It's very easy to survive on adrenalin without ever stopping to ask the point of it. News keeps breaking: if you want to postpone your life indefinitely, you can. But when you retire, you'll look back on the catalogue of odd and incoherent events that make up a career in journalism and think: I could have had relationships with something other than the news. I could have had a successful marriage. I could have made friends with my children.'

He felt he was copping out of work. Yet, he adds: 'I know that what I did is something many women have to do. It's the women who often find that a job that once thrilled them suddenly ceases to be meaningful because the children came along.'

What was once a pleasure now feels like a trap. 'You can't just take a child to EuroDisney once in a while and say that you've been a parent. You don't get it back.'

STILL SEARCHING - Sarah Rivett-Carnac

Sarah Rivett-Carnac, 39, started her eponymous jewellery business in 1993, but recently began to question what meaning she was finding in her job. 'We live in a society where people judge you for what you do, not what you are,' she says. 'So many of us do things for external recognition.

I began to wonder what my motives were: am I doing this for status or because it gives me fulfilment? I see a lot of women sacrificing everything that is important: marriages, a home life, children, their health, dinner parties, weekends away for the sake of a career. For what?'

Initially, Rivett-Carnac continued to run her business from home after her two boys - now five and eight - were born. 'I had to employ a nanny because I was travelling across the country doing private shows in people's houses,' she says. Days were long, with Rivett-Carnac designing in the early morning and daytime, and fitting in clients in the evenings. Things came to a head last March when her elder son developed problems at school and needed more support at home.

She tried to combine motherhood with running a small business, but started developing severe headaches and couldn't sleep at night. 'I started resenting my clients,' she says. 'I couldn't understand why I had chosen this career in the first place. I kept thinking to myself it would be so much easier to work in a shop, have someone tell me what to do.'

Yet Rivett-Carnac also felt guilty for feeling this way. 'You build a business based on something you love doing - in my case, designing jewellery - and suddenly you're in the business of running a business. It doesn't give you the same satisfaction; in fact, it makes you miserable, but there you are - you created it. I kept saying to myself: I can't be burnt-out at the age of 39 when I'm running a business I supposedly love. I should be happy.'

Last month, she decided to stop working. She still owns the business, but is no longer taking commissions. 'I thought about it a great deal. Ten years ago, I needed the status of having a career. But once you reach burn-out, you start questioning everything. I think I can now live with just being a mum.'

Rivett-Carnac is fortunate to have a husband who can support her financially while she's not working. Yet she continues to grapple with the issue of work and meaning. Although her home life is more peaceful, and she no longer needs to have a nanny, she also finds that she misses the business.

'I worked hard to build up this business,' she says. 'I don't want to look back and regret not having stuck with it because things got tough.'


1. You win enough money on the lottery to free you from ever having to work again. Would you carry on working anyway, or resign with relief at the first opportunity?

2. Picture yourself in five years' time. Do you still want to be in the same line of work, or does the thought fill you with horror?

3. You've been told you have one year to live. How would you feel about spending that year in your present job?

4. Does what you're doing now match any of the interests and passions you had when younger?

5. Is it common for you to feel totally immersed in your work? Or is it difficult to get yourself motivated?

6. When someone asks you what you do, do you answer with pride or feel reluctant to talk about it?

7. Do you wish you could apply for voluntary redundancy so that you could head off and do something completely different?

8. If you knew for a fact that you couldn't fail, would you be doing what you're doing now?

9. Do you get a sense of mastery and fulfilment from your work?

10. You're offered a free placement on either a course that's bound to get you promoted or a non-work course about a topic that really interests you. Which do you choose?


1. Consider ways to make your own job more engaging. Perhaps you need to stretch yourself more, or to move into a more challenging role.

2. Force yourself to identify the areas that most interest you. Then do some research on whether you can incorporate any of them into your working life.

3. Plan long-term. Decide where you would like to be in 10 years' time and start working towards that goal now.

4. Talk to others who have pursued their dreams. Find out exactly how they did it and whether you might do the same.

5. Identify your natural skills and interests. There may be ways in which you might apply them in starting up a new business.

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