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Page last updated at 16:37 GMT, Friday, 23 May 2008 17:37 UK

The best way to find meaning at work? Don't look for it

Hospital ward
Nursing has meaning, then managers come along with performance targets


It pays the mortgage and gets you up in the morning, but these days workers want more from a job - they want meaning. Just don't go looking for it, says Lucy Kellaway.

Not long ago a man came to our house to unblock the drain. He peered into the stinking manhole, stirred the sewage with a stick and gleefully pronounced that there were several months of back-up in there. He then got to work with a rod and a plunger, and finally with a high-pressure hose - which sent the filthy, stinking mess flying into his face and all over the garden.

While he toiled he cracked jokes, gave me a lesson in the engineering of Victorian drains, and eventually, having cleared the blockage and tidied up as best he could, he got into his van, whistling to himself as he drove away.

Lucy Kellaway
We start to demand that our work has a larger meaning. This almost always ends badly, meaning is a bit like happiness - the more you go out looking for it the less you find

Since then I've kept thinking of this contented sewage man, and wondering what exactly it was that he got from his job that so many people doing grander and cleaner ones don't seem to get from theirs.

It strikes me that we are in the middle of an epidemic of meaninglessness at work. Bankers, lawyers, and senior managers are increasingly asking themselves what on earth their jobs mean, and finding it hard to come up with an answer. As the agony aunt on the Financial Times I get asked all the time by successful professionals - what is it all about?

The Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wouldn't have been in the least surprised by this. In 1946 he wrote Man's Search for Meaning in which he argued that that our deepest hankerings are not - as Freud thought - of a sexual nature, but are a lust for purpose in life. Frankl spent five years in Nazi prison camps and during that time he worked out that there are three paths to meaning - work, love and suffering.

Gordon Brown, a man who has been doing a certain amount of suffering of late, seems to think that the answer is to strive harder. In a speech last week he said "I aspire for everyone to reach for the light - their ambition. Very simply, I aspire to create an opportunity-rich country where everyone can get on and get up in the lives we live. Never to level down, always to lift up."

Stamp of approval

This doesn't sound much more profound than James Brown's song Sex Machine - Fellas, I'm ready to get up and do my thing - get on up.

James Brown and Gordon Brown
'Get up, get on up' - the Browns' approach to work
It's also dreadfully bad advice, as Brown should know from personal experience. For all those years when Tony Blair was at Number 10, Brown reached for his ambition - but now that he has got on and got up, has he found the light? No, it seems to me that the poor man is floundering around in the dark.

This doesn't mean that ambition is a mistake; it is just that there is no magic to advancement per se. The status and the money go up, but that's it. And then, beset by affluence and by introspection we start to demand that our work has a larger meaning. This almost always ends badly: meaning is a bit like happiness - the more you go out looking for it the less you find.

So where is the real meaning at work? Last week I put the question to various people - starting with our postman. Do you think your job has meaning, I asked him, as he stuffed a fistful of junk mail through our tiny letter box. He looked at me and shrugged. "I'm trying to pay the bills".

Getting paid to do a job is surely the most important sort of meaning there is. Earning enough money to feed and house one's family might be at the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, but the rest of the edifice depends on having this solid base.

Is the job sick?

As for the work itself, the postman said: "It's not the best job in the world, but I try to keep cheerful. I've always said that if you are unhappy at work, there must be something wrong somewhere else in your life."

A meaningful job? Sometimes it's just about paying the bills
He may have been on to something here. In the last few months three people with grand jobs have been involved in three horrible, violent ends. Mark Saunders, a successful barrister, was killed in a police shoot out; Mike Todd the chief constable of Greater Manchester police force was found dead on a hill, gin bottle by his side. And last summer the insurance millionaire Alberto Izaga, suffered a shocking breakdown and ended up beating his two-year-old daughter to death.

It is tempting to conclude - as many columnists have - that there is something about the intolerable stress and emptiness of these top positions that lead people to breaking point. The jobs are sick and they are making us sick too.

Possibly; but overall, I'm with the postman, in thinking that such problems come from us. I don't believe that these jobs are terribly sick. Instead, these were three unrelated personal tragedies that tell us nothing about work at all.

My search for meaning - and for a pint of milk - then took me to the Turkish corner shop where I asked my question to the man behind the counter. He was looking tired: his shop is open fifteen hours a day so one might think he had no time for meaning. But he said there was a lot of meaning in what he did. "I make a living and I like the people who come to my shop." he said.

Parenting craft

A good point, too. According to a recent survey of work place satisfaction, liking one's work-mates is as important as money in persuading people not to quit. Simply by being friendly and chatting by the coffee machine one is creating meaning... of a sort, which, given how much chatting I do, is quite a comforting thought.

When you have spent a couple of days changing nappies and grilling fish fingers, to be surrounded by adults who don't want their bottoms wiped seems pretty meaningful
The shopkeeper also said he liked the work itself - he takes pleasure in stacking his tiny premises so high with goods that he has just the thing you want when you find the cupboard is bare at 10pm. It's hard running a successful corner shop, and he's good at it.

According to Richard Sennett's new book, The Craftsman, this ability to master a skill and then practice it well satisfies a basic human need. For Sennett, a craftsman doesn't have to make beautiful inlaid cabinets or chisel stone. He could be a software programmer, a cook or even a parent.

This satisfaction in the job itself seems to me the best sort of meaning there is. As a journalist, I survive on those rare jolts of pleasure that come when you find just the right words and get them together in just the right order.

Yet this sort of "craft" meaning isn't open to everyone. Shoving junk mail though letter boxes isn't a craft. Neither, at the other end of the spectrum, is being prime minister. Indeed no jobs that involve managing or leading are crafts, which is one of the things that makes it so particularly hard for managers to find meaning in what they do.

Peace with pointlessness

In fact managing is one of the most thankless jobs in the world. What managers are mainly trying to do is to get other people to do things that they don't want to. To work harder, for a start. Their other primary function is to carry the can, and to get blamed for all sorts of things that probably aren't their fault. Not only are they creating little meaning for themselves, they get blamed for destroying meaning for people below them.

Chocolate factory
The craft of making people happy... through chocolate
Sennett describes how the craft of doctors and nurses is spoilt by NHS managers and their punishing targets. Teachers bleat endlessly that government guidelines are taking all the joy out of teaching. The other day an RAC man changed my tyre, which he accomplished in about three minutes, and spent the next 10 jabbing data into a hand held computer. He told me that this new bureaucracy had destroyed his pleasure in the job - a complaint echoed by most workers in most jobs. The meetings, the second guessing, the pointless duplication, the politics, we all moan. Just let us do the damned job.

In some ways I'm with the managers, or I would be if they didn't so often make such a hash of it. Hospitals and schools both need targets. Businesses, including the RAC, need to be run efficiently. People hate change, we naturally suspect all new ways of doing things, we scream that the purpose in the job is going, but that's too bad.

Maybe the best way of dealing with pointlessness at work is not to worry too much about it. An acquaintance in advertising tells me how one day he and his colleagues were agonizing over a tiny nuance in a script for a radio commercial. Suddenly he had a jolt of realisation: this was utterly pointless. Since then he has made his peace with the meaninglessness of what he does, and enjoys the job rather more as a result.

Another way of finding work more meaningful is to do less of it. Last week the government extended its plans for flexible working to make it easier for parents to work part time. When I worked a three day week I found the meaning of work was complemented by the meaning of looking after children. Or rather, that each provided a refuge from the meaninglessness of the other. When you have spent a couple of days changing nappies and grilling fish fingers, to be surrounded by adults who don't want their bottoms wiped seems pretty meaningful. And by contrast, having half of one's identity tied up in the rearing of children means that one places fewer impossible demands on the job itself.

A final way of gaining meaning at work is also on the rise: and that is the threat of redundancy. As a result of the credit crunch 55,000 financial sector jobs have already been lost, and more losses are to come. While being fired is the ultimate sign that one's job was meaningless, the relief of escaping the axe could make one so grateful to have work, that one stops asking oneself such awkward questions.

Below is a selection of your comments:

Once again we're left with blind optimism. Why are we so terrified of admitting that our jobs really are pointless and meaningless? Because the prospect that we've wasted so long, combined with the fact that we need to do something about it, is so terrifying. Admit it. Move on. Do something worthwhile. Work for your life, don't live for your work.
Steven, Bristol

I started working at a corner shop 3 1/2 years ago just to pay the bills and now if I take any time off I'm surprised by how many customers say they miss me! The job just pays the bills but it's true the people who I serve (save some unsavoury customers) and work with make the job worthwhile. -x-
Natalie Hornshaw, Hull, UK

What a patronising load of old twaddle. Excuse me whilst I take a break from stuffing envelopes and build a pyramid to fulfil my 'craft' urges
Steve Wenderby, Basingstoke

I'm a graduate, in my mid 30s. I work in an area completely unrelated to my degree, on a helpline for people with mental health problems and their carers. It can be intensely satisfying - people tell me that they didn't know where to turn, were at their wits' end before they spoke to me - and utterly frustrating. I know I am making a difference to people who may be at a very low point in their lives. Yet other (especially graduate) friends of mine can't understand why I don't want to be a high powered manager; they earn twice, five times and even it one case 8 times as much as me. I can, at least, feel that I'm doing something worthwhile, rather than sitting in endless meetings and swimming in paperwork.
Miriam, Leeds

So get back to work plebs! An article towing the corporate line but to be expected from someone deeply entrenched in the big business merry-go-round. It's a cop out to dismiss the demise of Saunders, Todd and Izaga as dysfunctional, isolated anomalies. Potentially these were healthy human beings reduced by a soul sapping work life and it's irresponsible to disregard this possibility. We wonder why there's been such an increase in alcohol related hospital admittances in the last 10 years, not to mention the huge amount of cocaine consumed in the city each year. We work too hard and are not afforded enough scope to be with our families and to be ourselves. There are imbalances in the way that we live that this article seeks to sweep under the carpet, to maintain the status quo for the benefit of business.
Russell Brooks, London, UK

couldn't agree more. I've been in the Post Office for 32 years never than in the last 1 or 2 have I ever been so bogged done in measurement, performance targets, individual drivel and i AM THE MANAGER. I used to believe that I was making a difference to people I worked with, managed and supplied a service for. Now most of what I do is around meaningless measurement of what people do, in reality things they have been doing for years very well in fact, pointless meetings each day and week going on about seemingly nothing. And then they make me work until 65 now as the present pension is meaningless!!
Paul Halsall, Southport

I often feel bouts of meaningless at work. However, thinking of the end goal and the reason for our project's existence helps matters. Working less (say a four day week) would be something to aspire to. Sometimes I feel I suffer from cash rich and time poor syndrome.
DL, Zurich

This seems a really valid point and should be bought to greater attention, not so much the meaninglessness of what most of us do, that's just going to be depressing. rather were forgetting how to appreciate the smaller things in pursuit of greater things. my 2 "cents"
Qas, UEA

The point of being a "craftsman" is that you do the job "right". You know when perfection is necessary - and also when pragmatism is not a problem. Too often these days you get a culture where people follow a set of rigid rules without understanding the "principles" - or they are totally cavalier, as long as "it looks right".
ChrisJK, UK

Two of the best pieces of careers advice I ever had were when I was at Sussex University. First of all try to do what you enjoy doing. Second, even if you win the rat race that still only makes you a rat.
John Airey, Peterborough, UK

A very enjoyable, eloquent and succinct reason to "work to live". "Live to work" ... discuss !
David Mahoney, Lymington

I really enjoyed short Lucy's investigation in to the meaning of work and the ideas behind the search for meaning. The ideas were wonderfully expressed and explored in this insightful programme.
Phil Whittaker, Tonbridge

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