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Learn in this fifth post in the Combating Burnout series how to rediscover a sense of meaning in your work to improve your well-being and stress hardiness.


A personal sense of meaning is one of the most important attitudes we can possess.

Meaning can help people survive the most difficult—even horrible—conditions and events.

Viktor Frankl poignantly documented this effect in his memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning, which described the power of meaning that helped him and others to live through the horrors of the Nazi death camps during World War II.

Book lyting open with cover facing out: Man's Search for Meaning by Victor E Frankl

By Pop Zebra on Unsplash


On the flip side of that coin, in addition to bolstering our resilience for coping with stress and hardships, a personal sense of meaning can also greatly enhance our happiness and well-being. Indeed, positive psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman described meaning as one of the core components for happiness and well-being.

A personal sense of meaning can also help us to overcome the inevitable stresses and difficulties of our work. Meaning is a powerful antidote to burnout and it can enhance our work well-being and satisfaction.

Loss of Meaning

Unfortunately, however, many people often go about their daily work without a firm sense of meaning.

Most people started their careers with a sense of purpose and meaning, but lost it somewhere along the way.

Current work conditions can threaten a personal sense of meaning for many workers. Business trends that increasingly emphasize corporatization, standardized procedures, outsourcing, technology, efficiency, productivity, and profits can play havoc with individual workers’ feelings of personal meaning

And, as a result of stress, difficulties, distractions, and simply the hustle-and-bustle of busy schedules and harried lifestyles, many people have lost a sense of meaning or purpose in their work.

The good news though is that we can recover—sometimes by rediscovering, sometimes by creating anew—a personal sense of meaning and purpose that can enhance our well-being and buffer us against burnout.

But how do we rediscover or create that sense of purpose and meaning in our work?

Rediscovering or Creating Meaning

There are several methods you can use to discover or reaffirm your personal sense of meaning in work, as taught in the BREATHE program and described in an upcoming book, Finding Purpose in a Burned Out World:  How You Can Overcome Burnout.

One very simple way of recovering our sense of meaning at work is to take time to remember your purpose and intentions.

Facing the Essential Question

If you are not familiar with it, I suggest you read Pulitzer-Winning Poet Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day.”  This poem, like the work of other poets and many philosophers, reminds us that life is precious and asks each of us what we will do with this life that we have.

Answering this question for yourself can provide a touchstone for dealing with work stresses and bolstering your sense of well-being. Rather than simply pass over this central question, it is useful to mindfully consider the matter in a simple exercise, as described below.

You Can Try This

Take a few moments to reflect on both the preciousness of life and the existential question that poets, philosophers—and indeed, that life itself—asks of each of us: What will you do with this life of yours?

  • After reflecting, write down your response.
  • As much as possible, try to state your intentions in words that are specific and actionable.
  • Don’t be discouraged if you first attempts are vague.  Something as grand as your life purpose often needs multiple attempts to craft it precisely.
Close up of man deep in thought

Curious Collectibles from Pixaby

Additional Methods

Sometimes it is difficult to come up with the direct answer to such a major and personal, but essential question.

In the upcoming book, Finding Purpose in a Burned Out World:  How You Can Overcome Burnout, you will also find additional methods to help you find or clarify your sense of meaning for work.

One involves a short narrative exercise that helps you discover meaningful experiences at work. The other guides you on identifying your values and beliefs and extrapolating these to your reasons for working.

The Importance of Meaning in Work

Finding and sustaining a sense of purpose and meaning in your work is critically important for your happiness as well as for preventing burnout.

I recently had the opportunity to visit the rugged coast of southwestern Ireland and to view Skellig Michael, a very small island of sheer rock that rises 700 feet from the Atlantic Ocean, eight miles off the coastline.

Monks and Star Wars

Over the years, beginning in the 6th Century, a small group of early Christian monks built from the rock a small monastic complex of rock shelters and more than 600 stone steps that rose to the rocky summit.

Most recently, the producers of Star Wars used the location while filing the scene of Luke Skywalker’s place of refugee and reflection.

In actual history, monks lived in near isolation for hundreds of years, catching rain water and harvesting eggs from seabirds, while engaged in spiritual practice.

By Manuel from Pixaby

A recent scholar of their monastery posed the question of how the monks could have survived such “back-breaking work” that many would find “dulling, stultifying,” and monotonous?

The scholar concluded that their work was supported by an attitude of seeking “spiritual harmony with nature—a vision of God in every wonderful aspect of life on land, sea, and air.” This attitude imbued their work and created joy and fulfillment.

A Parable About Meaning In Work

The history of the monks of Skellig Michael also reminds me of a parable about the critical importance of meaning in work, which was originally told by Roberto Assagioli, the founder of the psychosynthesis approach to psychotherapy.

The story, which I am paraphrasing, goes like this:

An observer asked a stone cutter working with granite what he was doing.

The first man replied in anger: “What does it look like I’m doing, idiot?  I’m cutting stones for this new cathedral they’re building. They bring me a rock and I cut it into a block, and then they take it away and bring me a new rock to cut.  Over and over, I do this.  It’s drudgery every day. I’ve been doing it for years and I’ll keep doing it for years until the day I die.”

The observer then asked a second person cutting granite blocks what he was doing.  This man smiles and answers differently, saying “I’m earning a living for my beloved family.  With the money I earn, I provide a home, food, and schooling for my children so they will have a better life.”

The observer then asked a third stone cutter the same question as to what he was doing.

This person answered with joy and fulfillment: “I am helping to build a great cathedral that will stand for centuries as a beacon of light to those who are lost so they can find a holy place of refuge and comfort and be able to commune with God.”

Shary Reeves from Pixaby

This parable of the three stone cutters illustrates the importance of the stories we tell about ourselves about our work, and how a sense of meaning can enrich our experience of the day.

The story of the three stone cutters also illustrates another crucial point:  sometimes we construct attitudes or meanings that are too small for us and rob us of greater meaning and fulfillment.

The first stone cutter was simply doing a job of monotony and drudgery.   The second had a higher purpose, one of supporting his family.  The third one found a deep sense of spiritual meaning.

Clearly, the beliefs and meanings assigned by the second and third stone cutters reduced their work stress and brought them a greater sense of achievement and fulfillment.

The Crucial Question

The most crucial remaining question is a personal one:

What meaning and purpose can you discover or create for your work?


Lead photo by Sweet Life on Unsplash

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