How To Make Work More Meaningful


Salt columnist Nick Kettles discusses job satisfaction, meaningful work and happiness, in his new column on ‘innerpreneurship’.

Unknown[1] Research may suggest that the productivity problem at the heart of ailing economies is down to bad management, poor education and low investment in technology, but I beg to differ.

We have a productivity problem because so many are bored within an inch of their lives, trapped in soulless workplaces, and engaged in relatively empty work, which increasingly encroaches on their health and private lives.

Work is killing us, and we are not happy in other words. Ergo we are not motivated to do more than we are asked.

We can fix that, no? Of course there are many things we can do: better work-life balance, remote working, flexi-time, and yes, better education, management and technology. However, while those things will help take the edge off, and might improve our health and wellbeing to keep the wheels turning, will they really make us happy?

Even better pay to assuage the pain of our Faustian bargain doesn’t always work. High-paid consultants are, according to one study, willing to fake an 80-hour week to ensure they can maintain their work-life balance.

The idea of happiness doesn’t get a lot of attention in political spheres. Even its mention in the US declaration of independence, can be easy to misconstrue. The key word there is ‘pursue’; not happiness itself of course. We have a right to pursue happiness, but not to it. Even happiness derived from knowing you have material and physical security is not a politically enshrined right. The Occupy Wall St protestors will tell you that, as will any refugee willing to risk their lives to illegally cross borders.

Indeed, most know that financial freedom is unlikely to ever happen, even in retirement where for a majority their pensions will fall short.

Perhaps the problem is that while we’ve become more serious about measuring happiness – 2011 UN Resolution 65/309 invites countries “to pursue additional measures…capturing the importance of the pursuit of happiness and wellbeing” – we haven’t taken the time to reconsider what happiness actually is today.

One interesting study from Stanford Graduate School might point the way. The report makes a clear distinction between happiness defined as getting what you want, and meaningfulness rooted in expressing and defining oneself.

Happiness without meaning, says the report, is characterised by a relatively shallow and often self-oriented life, in which things go well, needs and desires are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided. A life of meaning, by contrast, is more deeply tied to a valued sense of self and one’s purpose in the larger context of life and community, and, as importantly, a willingness to embrace the challenges in our lives.

How paradoxical; true happiness is available to us when we don’t stick our heads in the sand. Given endemic absenteeism and presenteeism rates, and the growing incidence of burn out, employers should be rushing to address the challenges of an uncertain world head-on, to motivate their workforce.

Those who have created businesses in service of creating social and environmental justice already know something of this. Job satisfaction soars when our work is meaningful and we can see the difference we are making. At Salt we call them ‘innerpreneurs’: those unwilling to compromise their values simply to acquire more stuff. The process of ‘innerpreneurship’ will be the focus of this column. The question is whether the self and the greater good are really separate concerns, or in fact intimately entwined – our guiding compass. We look forward to the conversation.

Nick Kettles is a writer, consultant, and trainer of Co-Active Coaching, with the Coaches Training Institute. To find out more:



Photo Credit: Haldane Martin from flickr





  1. Dear Nick, you raise many valid points. Indeed, the people I know who are the most cheerful and energetic are those who have a burning sense of meaning and mission in their work. One friend of mine speaks about his work as a teacher and therapists as pursuing his “life’s question.” But – it’s one thing to talk about meaning, another to find it if you don’t currently have it! Where is one to go, in that 9-5 grind, in order to connect with that deeper sense of purpose in your life?