"Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving."
– Colossians 3:23-24

In 2016, Gallup declared a “crisis” in employee engagement. At the time, just 13% of employees globally fit the company’s definition of engaged: “involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace.” In the U.S., a higher percentage of employees, 32%, were found to be engaged, although that was still arguably low.

And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. In 2020, U.S. employee engagement numbers fluctuated greatly, from a low of 31% to a high of 40%. The pandemic also ushered in the Great Resignation, with many people having left their jobs or considering doing so. Last summer, a Gallup survey found that 48% of workers in the U.S. were actively job searching or watching for opportunities. A separate survey last fall put that figure at over 70%.

Gallup believes the “Great Resignation” should really be called the “Great Discontent,” noting that employee retention is strongly correlated with employee engagement.

The challenge employers face in trying to foster engagement among a displaced workforce is evident in the most recent Gallup surveys. On the one hand, the organization has found especially high levels of engagement among employees who have a hybrid work arrangement where they work remotely at least some of the time. However, the organization has also found high levels of burnout among employees who work from home all or nearly all of the time.

Gallup’s latest surveys indicate that 20% of workers globally fit its definition of “engaged in 2021. In the U.S., the number is 34%. After many years of generally trending upward, these numbers reflect a downturn in engagement vs. the previous year.

Whose job is it?

For the most part, Gallup focuses on steps employers can take to foster stronger employee 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 raises the question: are employers solely responsible for their workers’ engagement?

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?

It’s possible that to be “involved in and enthusiastic” about 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? And how has the pandemic impacted your sense of engagement with your work?