Many aspects of professional life can contribute to […] giving meaning [to work]: a sufficient salary to live decently, career prospects, social and friendly ties, recognition, harmony between professional and family time .
Retail cashiers, studied by [sociologist and associate researcher at Harvard] Isabelle Ferreras, value their professional activity in large part for social connections that it allows them to establish outside the family sphere. Prison guards or police "hold on" thanks to the recognition and support of their colleagues, although they often feel "hated by the inmates, despised by the administration, unloved and disrespected by public opinion".
However, if the salary, the career, the conviviality or the conciliation give meaning to something, it is not at work, but at the job. Employment is the institution that frames the exercise of work, not the work itself. To speak of "meaning of work" for all the positive aspects attached to the occupation of a job would make it a catch-all concept lacking in interest.
Above all, we would miss what makes work specific: an activity by which the person engages his body and his mind in the act of producing, by mobilizing his know-how, his dexterity, his intelligence, his creativity, etc.
In this context, what can give meaning to my work?[…] We can […] usefully distinguish [according to the psychiatrist Christophe Dejours], three dimensions of the meaning of work :
"Meaning in relation to a purpose to be achieved in the objective world; the meaning of these activities in relation to values in the social world; meaning, finally, in relation to self-fulfillment in the subjective world".
Let us take up these three dimensions one after the other. The person at work feels a "judgment of usefulness" when he sees that the concrete product of his work makes it possible to satisfy the needs of his recipients. This feeling of social utility is not to be confused with recognition. Thus, many employees who have been described as "invisible" (such as childminders, hairdressers, home helpers, cleaning staff) believe they are doing useful work, while suffering from low symbolic and salary recognition.
The feeling of usefulness is not enough: it must be supplemented by pride in a job well done, recognition of the quality of the work, the "beauty judgment" carried by colleagues or superiors, who know the job. We will then speak of "ethical coherence". This consistency is never ensured in advance: in a very general way, in the relationship of wage subordination, "the motives of the employee and the purpose of the task assigned to him do not correspond" [according to the teacher- researcher in health and occupational medicine Philippe Davezies], employees have a conception of what a "job well done" is that never fully matches the quality of work criteria defined by the managers.
Finally, the work must positively transform the person himself. Each ordeal encountered can be an opportunity to learn new things, to implement one's skills and to increase one's experience. Provided that the organization of work allows, the deployment of living work is a factor of fulfillment.
Much more than a question of remuneration
There are two ways to statistically measure the meaning of work. The first is to ask people if they find meaning in their work. In general, 80% to 90% of people answer "yes": the question is vague and there are many reasons to find meaning in one's work, starting with the remuneration.
The second way relies on a theory of why a job can be meaningful. According to our analytical framework, it is to feel useful to others, to respect one's ethical and professional values, and to develop one's abilities: these will therefore be the three dimensions of the meaning of work that we are going to analyze statistically by mobilizing the surveys working conditions of 2013 and 2016.
The feeling of social usefulness is described thanks to two questions: "I do something useful to others" and "I am proud to work in this company (or organization)". We can assume that the pride claimed by employees is based on the reputation enjoyed by their company with regard to the quality of its products or services.
Ethical coherence is apprehended by three questions: one positive, "I feel the feeling of a job well done"; two in negative, "I have to do things that I disapprove of" and "I have to do an operation too quickly which would require more care".
Four questions are used to assess development capacity. The first two relate directly to this subject: "in my work, I have the opportunity to develop my professional skills" and "I can organize my work in the way that suits me best". The other two concern the fact of (not) "feeling bored in my work" and "the possibility of doing things that I enjoy". […]
Overall […], only a minority ticks all the boxes of meaning: 1% give the maximum score ("always") and 32% a positive score ("always" or "often") for each of the nine questions mentioned. This is shown in the figure below.
If we assign scores ranging from 0 for a very negative answer to 3 for a very positive answer, we can construct three sub-scores by adding the scores for each question (2 for social utility, 3 for ethical coherence and 4 for capacity development). The global sense of work score is obtained by adding the three sub-scores.
Through their variations, these scores reveal contrasting situations depending on the characteristics of the people and their professional environment.
The prize list of meaning
Thus, workers in industry (particularly in the process, mechanical and handling industries) as well as employees in commerce and sales find particularly little meaning in their work in 2016 ; this is also the case for bank and insurance employees, and guard and security agents (Figure 2). So many relatively unskilled professions.
Is the meaning of work the prerogative of the top of the social hierarchy? In fact, it's more complicated: the professions with the highest sense of work scores are childminders and, more generally, professions in the which (home helpers, cleaners, doctors), to whom we can add teachers, trainers and social action and guidance professionals.
Thus, the professions that find the most meaning in their work often have the particularity, whatever the level of qualification, of placing their occupants in contact with the public or customers.
This is confirmed by an econometric analysis that makes it possible to reason “all other things being equal”: the fact of working in contact with the public increases the meaning of work, by reinforcing both the feeling of social utility and the ability to development, even if, on average, this also promotes ethical conflicts.
Coralie Perez, Economist, Research Engineer at the Sorbonne Center for Economics, Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne University et Thomas Coutrot, Associate researcher at IRES (Institute for Economic and Social Research)