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This article was published 07-08-2018

Meaningful work and work engagement

Meaningful work is work that is experienced as particularly significant and holding positive meaning for an individual and is highly valued by contemporary employees. The experience of meaningful work depends on the personal connection between an employee and his or her work, which motivates an employee to go the extra mile at work.

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Meaningful work and work engagement: the mediating role of perceived opportunities to craft and job crafting behavior.

Studies have linked meaningful work to, employee well-being, while meaningless work has been linked to disengagement and estrangement. Due to these relations, scholars and practitioners in the field of work and organizational psychology have been highly motivated to better understand the impact of meaningful work within organizations. Although the relation between meaningful work and work engagement is clear, relatively little is known about the processes through which meaningful work actually affects work engagement.

An employee experiences meaningful work when the work’s objectives are aligned with his or her own ideals and principles. Such an experience emerges when an employee’s personal beliefs, values and behaviors match the requirements of the job. Whether or not employees experience their work as meaningful depends on the subjective assessment of the employee and less on the objective reality. Employees experience meaningful work when they perceive their work as significant and important. Although employees vary in their perceptions of meaningful work because they differ in personality, every employee assesses the meaningfulness of work to some extent. The experience of meaningful work by employees has a positive impact on personal and workrelated outcomes. Recent research has demonstrated that employees who experience meaningful work are more engaged than employees who do not consider their work as meaningful.

Vigor, dedication and absorption

Work engagement is the positive, fulfilling and workrelated state of mind that is characterized by vigor, dedication, and absorption. Employees who are vigorous experience high levels of energy and are mentally resilient at work. Employees who are dedicated are involved in their job and enthusiastic about it. Employees who are absorbed are concentrated and immersed in their work. Combined, we indeed expect that high levels of meaningful work are related to high levels of vigor, dedication, and absorption; and thus to high levels of work engagement.

The relation between meaningful work and work engagement has been demonstrated many times before, however less is known about the mechanisms that play a role in this relationship. Recent research demonstrated that meaningful work is related to increased performance via strengths use and work engagement. Meaningful work has also been associated with organizational citizenship behaviors, which are behaviors that go beyond the formal requirements of work, like volunteering for non-required tasks. Because of this, it was expected that the experience of meaningful work affects how employees think and act at work. Following this line of reasoning, Dr. Jessica van Wingerden MBA MCC (Vice President of Research & Organizational Development at Schouten Global), Joost van der Stoep MSc, and Prof. Dr. Rob Poell (Tilburg University) present the Meaningful Work - Work Engagement model, that includes mediating roles of perceived opportunities to craft (THINKING) and subsequently job crafting behavior (ACTING).

They tested how meaningful work relates to work engagement directly, and indirectly via perceived opportunities to craft and subsequently via job crafting. They argued that employees who perceive their work as meaningful perceive more opportunities to craft their job and subsequently do so. In the end this job crafting behavior is positively related to employee levels of work engagement.

Perceived Opportunities to Craft

Job crafting has been a well-known predictor of work engagement and can be defined as: employees’ selfinitiated changes aimed at aligning their job (and work environments) with their own preferences, motives, and passions.

Through job crafting, employees redefine the boundaries of their work in three ways:

1. Task Crafting which refers to cal or the physical or temporal boundaries of job tasks.

2. Relational Crafting which refers to redefining the interpersonal relationships at work. 3. Cognitive Crafting which refers to reconstructing one’s cognitions on the meaning or purpose of the job tasks.

In the end, all these crafting activities result in permanent changes in job design. This is because employees who engage in job crafting proactively establish congruence between their talents, strengths, and interests, and their work environment. By doing so, employees may experience their job as challenging, while maintaining their level of enjoyment and vitality.

Perceived opportunities to craft

Whether or not employees align their job (and work environments) with their own preferences, motives, and passions, may depend on employees’ perceived opportunities to craft (which can be defined as employees’ perceptions regarding their opportunities to proactively optimize their own work environment).

Different studies have shown that employees who perceive more opportunities to craft are more likely to craft their job. Managers who give their employees autonomy in their job and (positive) feedback on their previous job crafting behavior, may positively affect employees perceived opportunities to craft. In addition the experience of meaningful work influences how employees perceive their work, and subsequently their jobcrafting behavior.

Direct and indirect relation

Van Wingerden, Van der Stoep and Poell present a model in which meaningful work affects work engagement in two ways:

Meaninful work is directly and positively related to work engagement.

Meaninful work is indirectly and positively related to work engagement via perceived opportunities to craft and job crafting behavior.

Key issue

Although meaningful work has been considered a key issue within organizations, up till now relatively little was known about the processes through which meaningful work affects employee work engagement. The present study found support for a positive direct relation between meaningful work and employees’ work engagement, and a positive indirect relation where meaningful work has a positive relation with work engagement via employees’ perceived opportunities to craft their job and subsequently their job crafting behavior.

Positive relations

Because of the positive relations found between meaningful work and work engagement, cultivating meaningful work may provide management and HR a new way to successfully influence employee well-being at work. Both managers and HR could stimulate the experience of meaningful work among employees by, for example, starting a dialogue on how the objectives of work connect to the intrinsic values and beliefs of employees. In addition, managers can show their employees in which way everyone contributes to the team and/or organization goals. Furthermore, management plays a crucial role in the cultivation of meaningful work within organizations by clearly communicating the goals, values, and contributions of the organization.

A moral obligation

In conclusion, this study has shed more light on the Meaningful Work - Work Engagement relationship, and increased our understanding of  the complex relation between these constructs. Although meaningful work positively affects work engagement, the necessity of meaningful work is often also emphasized for more ethical reasons. Some even consider meaningful work a human right and a moral obligation of employers. Read the full research article here

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