CHICAGO — Jennifer Ruiz holds her patient’s trembling hand as she presses a stethoscope to the frail woman’s chest and belly. She compliments the woman on her recently painted fingernails. She cheerfully asks how she’s feeling, knowing she’ll get no answer from the little curled body in the big hospital bed.
Ruiz, a hospice nurse, finds her work deeply meaningful, in part for reasons that are obvious: “We get to be there for people during some of the most tragic and tough times in their lives.”
But even those who shepherd the dying and their families through the fear, heartbreak and mystery of the end of life can lose sight of a job’s meaning in the stress of the day-to-day, if their employer doesn’t foster it.
“You have to fan that flame,” said Brenda McGarvey, corporate director of program development at Skokie-based Unity Hospice, where Ruiz works. “It’s your responsibility.”
A job’s meaningfulness — a sense that the work has a broader purpose — is consistently and overwhelmingly ranked by employees as one of the most important factors driving job satisfaction. It’s the linchpin of qualities that make a valuable employee: motivation, job performance and a desire to show up and stay.
Meaningful work needn’t be lofty. People find meaning picking up garbage, installing windows and selling electronics — if they connect with why it matters.
But many employers seem to be missing an opportunity to tap this critical vein.
In a survey conducted by Energage for the Chicago Tribune’s 2017 Top Workplaces magazine, local employees regarded their employers more positively than the national average on nearly all measures, but companies fell significantly short in response to this statement: “My job makes me feel like I am part of something meaningful.”
Finding meaning in work is important to everyone, but employers should keep in mind that millennial employees are particularly keen on understanding a company’s social impact, due perhaps to social media that has let them feel connected to the world.
More meaning also could cut down on absenteeism. In a study published in 2012 in the Journal of Career Assessment, researchers found that people skip work not because they’re dissatisfied, uncommitted or even intend to quit, but rather because they find the work meaningless.
So what makes a job meaningful? And how do you achieve it?
A line of work doesn’t have to feel like a calling to feel meaningful, said Jaclyn Jensen, associate professor in the department of management and entrepreneurship at DePaul University.
Rather, Jensen said, citing research on the topic dating back 40 years, a job’s meaningfulness is driven by five factors, the three most important being that it allows you to use a variety of skills, that it has an impact on other people’s lives and that you are able see the product of your work from beginning to end. The other factors are having autonomy to do your best work and receiving feedback about your performance.