How does one define “meaning” in the workplace? Everyone conceptualizes their own definition of “meaning.” For some, being committed to a job brings meaning because they see their work as contributing to the goals of a larger organization (Myer & Allen, 1997). These individuals see their employment as central to meaningful growth. They find their careers as avenues for meaning, while others may attach no meaning to work. Some experience their careers as no more than “stacking the hay and loading the bales” (Lynch, 2012). Then there are those who see work as both the best and worst thing we do (Akabas & Kurzman, 2005). Everyone has a self-crafted meaning attached to their work. This all came into question in March 2020 when the COVID-19 global pandemic emerged and upended life. Businesses shut down, some employment was furloughed, and many converted from working in an office space to working online. With such dramatic shifts, how has meaning in the workplace changed?
Psychiatrist and author Viktor Frankl took it as self-evident that creating some work or doing some deed gives an individual meaning to their life (Woofenden, 2013). Many individuals believe this wholeheartedly by sacrificing the now for the future. The pandemic uprooted almost every individual’s career and the meaning they had attached to it. Everyone’s futures came into question. Thus, one should look at a variety of individuals in different fields to get a notion of how the pandemic affected their conceptualization of meaning.
One professional in the mental health field expressed discomfort overall. This discomfort stemmed from an increase in caseloads, which meant more clients presenting with a greater number of issues (Jordan, 2022). Another individual working as a barista expressed a loss of connection with their position. This connection became strained throughout the pandemic as management and customer relations placed further strain on this individual and their coworkers (Blum, 2022). Yet another person that worked in a corporate setting mentioned that the pandemic gave them time to rethink priorities in life which led to taking a lower paid position and focusing on one’s happiness (Worsena, 2022). Many reoriented their lives. Although one may find meaning in doing work, the pandemic created an environment in which many individuals found their work as pointless in a world in which the future was seemingly chaotic and unpredictable. One can easily see how people lost meaning in their work during the pandemic.
Yet, in another way, the pandemic granted a chance to recreate meaning. Many found purpose by focusing on personal happiness rather than material wealth. Others received insight and began exploring new career paths. The pandemic produced insufferable conditions which in turn gave an existential push for all of us to reexamine work, career, and the meaning behind both. However, not everyone had the same experiences during the outbreak and subsequent lockdowns. There are many who have lost friends, family, loved ones, and even their livelihoods.
Without any prior training or knowledge of how to navigate life during a global pandemic, counselors, therapists, psychologists, and other mental health professionals were tasked to help clients through losses, hardship, and discovery of meaning in their lives.
If COVID-19 has shown us anything, it is that people have the ability and insight to navigate issues surrounding meaning in the workplace. Many continue to struggle, but the overall trend is that success is not measured in the size of one’s wallet, but in the capacity of one’s heart to reimagine what work and career mean to them.
Akabas, S., & Kurzman, P. (2005). Work and the workplace: A resource for innovative policy and practice. Columbia University Press.
Blum, C. (2022, August 1). Interview with Cory Blum (L. Kocan, Interviewer) [Review of Interview with Cory Blum].
Jordan, B. (2022, August 1). Interview with rofessor (L. Kocan, Interviewer) [Review of Interview with Professor].
Lynch, C. (2012). Retirement on the line: Age, work, and value in an American factory. Cornell University Press.
Meyer, J. P., & Allen, N. J. (1997). Commitment in the workplace: Theory, research, and application. SAGE Publications, Incorporated.
Woofenden, L. (2013, November 13). Viktor Frankl on Meaning through Work. Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life. https://leewoof.org/2013/11/12/viktor-frankl-on-meaning-through-work/
Worsena, S. (2022, August 1). Interview with Sean Worsena (L. Kocan, Interviewer) [Review of Interview with Sean Worsena].