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High stress — without the high cost to your well-being

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Kandi Wiens

March 2023

This is the kind of paradox I love.

One of my research participants, a physician who ranked his work-related stress as “very severe”, also described his work as highly meaningful. The paradox? He was not burned out. 

In our interview, he said, “I don’t feel a ton of stress because I put things in perspective as I walk the halls [of the hospital], and see my patients. I know that everybody has stress, but as soon as I walk through that door and have contact with my patients, it’s show time and I’ve got to come through.”

What’s most fascinating to me is that, although he’s very aware that his work-related stress is quite high, his subjective experience of that stress is such that he isn’t suffering from burnout.

Let me repeat this important point. He’s not burned out because he is connected to what makes his work deeply meaningful: caring for patients.  

This is just one of *many* vivid examples from my research participants who describe how their subjective experience of stress was transformed by the experience of engaging in meaningful work. 

Studies on meaningful work paint a similar picture:

Employees who are connected with what makes their work meaningful are more productive, engaged, and committed to their organizations. They are also more satisfied with their jobs and enjoy greater well-being overall. 

Plus, motivated, energetic, high-performing and loyal employees are a huge benefit to organizations and those they serve. Meaningful work even has a direct impact on the bottom line, to the tune of an additional $9,078 per employee per year (not to mention the savings generated from avoiding high employee turnover)!

Finally, the concept of meaningful work is now at the top of many job seekers’ “must-haves.”

Yes, the global Covid-19 pandemic prompted nearly two-thirds of U.S. workers to think differently about their purpose in life, and nearly half to consider why they are doing the kind of work they do. But even before that, research found that over nine out of 10 employees would accept lower pay (on average 23% less of their future lifetime earnings) to have a meaningful job. 

It makes sense when you consider that up to 70% of employees say their sense of whole-life purpose is closely related to their jobs. And, most adults spend the majority of their waking hours on their jobs. 

No wonder we’re strongly motivated to pursue and engage in meaningful work (even if it means lower pay). 

But what constitutes “meaningful work”?

A lot of brain power has been put towards trying to answer this question. Well, my hot take is that although meaningful work is highly specific to each individual, there are a few core attributes we can zero in on:

  • It has intrinsic value to you. It’s a vehicle of self-expression, it supports your purpose, and/or it contributes to your own self-actualization.
  • It’s work that you perceive to have value to others. You feel that your work helps others or improves their lives in some way, contributes to the greater good, or furthers a cause.
  • It allows you to feel appreciated, needed, and valued. Whether it’s from explicit recognition or simply knowing that what you do makes a positive difference, meaningful work provides you with an opportunity to make an impact and to know you’re appreciated.

In short, meaningful work is work that matters — to others and to you. The closer we are to this ideal, the more meaningful our work becomes.

And the more we’re protected from burnout. 

I go into much more detail on this in my forthcoming book, Burnout Immunity: How Emotional Intelligence Can Help You Build Resilience and Heal Your Relationship with Work, which I’m excited to share will be published by HarperCollins in April 2024. If you can’t wait till then, hire me to speak! I would love to share some of my research on combating stress and preventing burnout by engaging in meaningful work with you.

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