According to Gallup, there’s a “crisis” of low employee engagement across the world. The polling organization largely blames employers, but whose job is it to foster a sense of engagement in our work?

The numbers

Gallup defines engagement as being “involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to your work and workplace.” The company’s surveys indicate that just 13% of workers globally fit those criteria. In the U.S., the numbers are better—32% are engaged—but still low. Gallup says the numbers haven’t changed in 15 years.

For the most part, Gallup blames employers who seem to be more intent on measuring engagement, and doing so incorrectly, rather than actually improving it.

Whose job is it?

Gallup identified several areas where employers could do more to foster engagement, such as clarifying work expectations, better equipping people with the tools they need to do their jobs well, providing learning and development opportunities, and being proactive about fostering positive co-worker relationships.

But it begs the question: are employers solely responsible for their workers’ engagement?

Defining the problem

Albert Einstein reportedly once said that if he had an hour to save the world, he’d devote 55 minutes to defining the problem.

A good starting point for solving the problem of low employee engagement is to rethink the definition of engagement. What seems to be missing is “meaning.” Isn’t that really what most people want—a sense that what they do all day matters?

Maybe to be “involved in, enthusiastic about and committed” in your work implies that you find it meaningful, but it couldn’t hurt to spell it out.  

Where is does meaning come from?

I used to think there were just two types of jobs in the world: meaningful jobs and all the rest. Meaningful jobs were ones in which the work itself helped people or helped solve one of the world’s great problems. Any other type of job was just a job. I now see it differently.

Some people do get the chance to do work that heals people, eradicates diseases, or other things that most would agree are inherently meaningful. However, there are many other types of jobs where great meaning can be found.

For some people, the satisfaction of providing for their family makes their work meaningful.

For others, their sense of meaning comes from how they use the fruits of their labor. For example, I know a corporate attorney who lives far beneath her means in order to contribute significant time and money to a ministry that keeps kids out of gangs and helps homeless people get a new start.

Maybe meaning is an inside job

When we struggle to find meaning in our work, one possible cause is that we think meaning is something our work should bring to us instead of us bringing meaning to our work.

In his book, “Authentic Happiness,” Psychologist Martin Seligman tells the story of a hospital orderly who meticulously selected pictures for the walls of a room where a close friend of Seligman’s lay unconscious. The orderly explained, “I’m responsible for the health of all these patients. Take Mr. Miller here. He hasn’t woken up since they brought him in, but when he does, I want to make sure he sees beautiful things right away.”

This orderly viewed his work as integral to the healing of patients. Another orderly might think of his work as menial and meaningless. The first orderly sees his job as a calling; the second perhaps only as a source of income. The tasks are the same; only the perspective is different.

How do you view your work? Is the actual work you do inherently meaningful? Or, is your job a means to some other end that you find meaningful?