Happiness and Wellbeing at Work

Putting research into practice

Meaningful Work and Well-being

Well-being is a whole-life concept that encompasses five life arenas: work, family, personal, community, and spiritual. These arenas are interdependent – what happens in any one arena inevitably impacts our attitudes, moods, behaviors, and experiences in the other arenas. Clearly, this integrated conception of well-being extends beyond our work. However, our-well-being at work impacts the other dimensions of our lives, just as those non-work arenas affect our sense of well-being at work.

Our overall well-being is a function of balance of time, commitment, and the investment of emotional energy in these five areas of life. In my coaching practice, I strongly encourage individuals to redefine success in a way that recognizes the importance of each of these arenas. This is a more complex view of success than is normally articulated in our culture. Yet, there is research that demonstrates that people who have a more complex sense of what it means to be successful are buffered from the strains and distresses of life.

The personal arena involves the private world where a person's emotional and innermost life is cultivated.  The ordering of this arena in life provides an anchoring stability around which the other life arenas may be ordered. This arena includes personal health, exercise, stress management and leisure time activities. The family arena emphasizes an individual’s responsibilities to the significant others in their life: spouse and children, as well as obligations to siblings and to parents. The spiritual arena includes the cultivation of a relationship with God, as enhanced by personal efforts in prayer, meditation, and study, as well as involvement in a community of like believers. The community arena suggests the need to be involved in the community, with the intent to serve others. Community suggests the need for healthy interpersonal attachments for the purpose of social support.

Despite the appeal of this balanced, holistic view of life, work remains the dominant dimension of our life. Our work matters, and it has both instrumental and intrinsic value. Instrumentally, work provides the means by which we make a living and support our families. The way we work impacts our employment status and our career trajectory. Our work has important implications for our personal identity and much of our self-esteem derives from our work. With the decline of traditional source of community and social support, the workplace has become the primary venue for fulfilling the need to connect with others. For many work is now the primary source of personal identity, significance, and meaning in life.

The quest for meaning is an innate human need and our work is the principal environment for fulfilling that need. Our work can satisfy the need for significance by allowing both the expression of personal uniqueness and the opportunity to make a purposeful contribution while connecting with others. This was emphasized by Tom Peters and Bob Waterman in their classic book, In Search of Excellence. They observed that in addition to personal recognition for their contribution, employees want to be involved in something greater than themselves. When individuals are pursuing a profound purpose or engaging in work that is personally important they experience significant positive effects. These outcomes include increased levels of commitment, empowerment, satisfaction, and a sense of fulfillment.  

Scholars have identified four key attributes of meaningful work (Cameron, 2012). First, meaningful work has an important positive impact on the well-being of human beings. Second, the work is associated with an important virtue or personal value. Third, the work has an impact that extends beyond the immediate time frame or creates a ripple effect. Finally, meaningful work builds supportive relationships and a sense of community among people. Meaningfulness means that both the work itself and the context within which the work is performed is perceived as purposeful and significant (Pratt & Ashworth, 2003). These perceptions may derive from the intrinsic characteristics of the work itself or from the mission and values the organization is pursuing.

In our recent book, Enhancing Employee Engagement: An Evidence-Based Approach, we report the results of a systematic investigation of the factors that drive employee engagement. Our research investigated the impact of a variety of managerial behaviors, job characteristics, and organizational practices that impact the level of employee engagement. Our findings indicate that the single most important factor for increasing and sustaining the level of employee engagement was the experience of meaningful work.

Meaningful work leads directly to higher levels of engagement. But it also impacts the levels of employee satisfaction, their commitment to the organization, and their willingness to go beyond role expectations to serve others. When the work is perceived as meaningful, people have a sense of fulfillment and purpose that provides a psychological sense of well-being. The experience of meaningful work and well-being then spills over into the other life arenas and contributes to the overall sense of an individual’s life purpose.

J. Lee Whittington is Professor of Management at the University of Dallas, USA. He is the author of Biblical Perspectives on Leadership and Organizations and co-author of Leading the Sustainable Organization with Tim Galpin and Greg Bell.


Cameron, K. S. 2012. Positive leadership: Strategies for extraordinary performance: San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Peters, T. J., & Waterman, R. H. 1982. In search of excellence: Lessons from America’s best run companies. New York: Harper & Row.

Pratt, M. G., & Ashforth, B. E. 2003. Fostering meaningfulness in working and at work. Positive organizational scholarship: Foundations of a new discipline: In K. Cameron & J. Dutton (Eds), Positive organizational scholarship: San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 309-327.

Whittington, J. L., Meskelis, S., Asare, E., & Beldona, S. 2017. Enhancing employee engagement: An evidence-based approach. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan

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