St Paul's Institute

Meaningful Working

by Dr Eve Poole

Posted: 16 Nov 2016

Do you know where your nearest graveyard is?  Try going for a walk there in your next lunch break.  Anthologies are full of poems about graveyards, because they make you think.  They are a great reality-check.  Some people get fancy gravestones, some people get plain ones, but all of them are dead.  Tempus fugit, memento mori - the Latin rings a muffled peal designed to encourage us the living to take our lives a bit more seriously.  Life is fragile and precious, and we shouldn't waste even a day of it.  Maybe that is why it is now fashionable at the start of MBA courses to get the students to write their own eulogy.

Much of that life is taken up working.  We have become rather practiced at explaining away this activity as a means to an end: bringing home the bacon; another day, another dollar; it pays the bills.  But you don't need an army of psychologists to tell you that it is part of the human condition to yearn for meaning.  So what does 'meaningful work' mean, exactly?  St Paul's Institute has partnered with the LSE to explore the subject, with two public events, and four student workshops on Purpose, Creativity, Balance and Vocation.  These headings are one way to answer the question.

Starting with the last of these, the notion of Vocation comes from the Christian tradition.  We used to restrict the term to the 'vocations' like nursing and teaching and public services.  Actually Luther had already hallowed all decent work as vocation, where it is an act of love and service, as expressed in these stanzas from George Herbert's 1633 poem The Elixir:

All may of thee partake:

Nothing can be so mean,

Which with his tincture (for thy sake)

Will not grow bright and clean.

A servant with this clause

Makes drudgerie divine:

Who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,

Makes that and th' action fine.

This has been rather pilloried as a cunning way to keep servants in their place.  Another poet, Cecil Frances Alexander, included in her 1848 hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful these immortal lines:

The rich man in his castle,

The poor man at his gate,

God made them high and lowly,

And ordered their estate.

Whatever your views on class and society, having a vocation or a calling in any occupation or trade has usually been about outcomes - we put up with rubbish pay or rubbish colleagues, or we work as volunteers, because the end justifies the means.  This is why Purpose is another of the Meaningful Work themes.  And because it is pretty hard to argue that you could be a virtuous executioner, we have tended to prioritise the end or 'telos' of the work, rather than the work itself.  This is of course important, but I think it has rather let us off the hook.  It gives an imbalanced account that smuggles in an unattractive tinge of martyrdom to proceedings - we all know dreary people who suffer valiantly because it is all so worth it, and they make sure we suffer with them.

So how about the meaning of both work and working?  The how as well as the what.  This is where the other themes of Creativity and Balance come in.  Creativity, because it delights God when we use our talents well, and Balance because self-emptying is God's job not ours.  An addiction to work is more about ego than service, and we know from fables like Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince that unsustainable giving just takes you out of commission, so you are of no use to anyone in the future.

But more than Creativity and Balance, which are perhaps discrete activities and frames, a thorough understanding of working as vocation means that daily behaviour becomes a sacrament and an offering.  Many of you will not only be carrying out work activities, but supervising others to do so too.  I have a view that management is in any case a sacred vocation, because through your formal or informal responsibility for reports and peers you can encourage or crush human endeavour.  Enabling and nurturing the talent of others is both a privilege and a duty, and not one to be taken lightly.  So for me managing workers and performing work are both opportunities for virtue, in that both require excellent practices.

The idea of professional excellence has been most recently explored in the work of the virtue ethicist, Alasdair MacIntyre, who is very keen on the notion of practices.  In a business community where Mindfulness is the zeitgeist, this has particular resonance, because it is about being both 'present' at work and deliberate about its performance.  It is about doing something beautifully even if no-one is watching.  The novelist Dorothy L Sayers calls this 'serving the work'.  In her 1942 essay Why Work?, she worries if we constantly have one eye on our audience, we do not have both eyes on the work.  This renders us victims of fashion, with no enduring idea of quality, because it becomes an entirely moveable feast.  We all know companies who have introduced stock options and performance bonuses with the best of intentions, only to discover that the behaviour it drives is nothing to do with quality and everything to do with the maxim 'what gets measured gets managed'.

So my plea for those of you who worry about meaning at work is to focus very particularly on your craft.  Are you imbuing even the most prosaic meeting or work conversation with meaning, by making it purposeful and beautiful?  Rather than a time sink, could your next one be an opportunity for creativity, service, learning and nurture?  It only lapses into tedium if you let it, and if you choose to waste your own time.  Your choice of employer is your decision, and your organisation may or may not yet serve a good end.  That is for you to wrestle with, and to influence.  But however you square your choices, please also attend to the mundane and the routine of the day-to-day.  The people in that graveyard would give anything for just one day of your life.  Please savour every moment of it, as an opportunity for you to radiate your reason for being on this earth, through your labour, as through your leisure and relationships.

Interested in hearing more on meaningful work?  Watch our event video 'What is Meaningful Work?' and then join us on 28th November 2016 for a free public event on 'Our Working Lives: Facing the Future'.

About this author

Dr Eve Poole is a Lecturer at Ashridge Business School, where she teaches leadership and ethics.

Comment on this dialogue


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.