Smart employers are finding ways to help employees find meaning in and through their work. The good news is that this enabling function can take several different forms, says Steve Crabb

As editor of a business magazine, I’m often asked what I think the key issues for HR and people management are. Sometimes that can be hard to pin down. And sometimes the answer is so obvious that I wonder if someone has pinned a note to my back saying, ‘The zeitgeist is such-and-such. Go on - talk to me about it.’
This is one of those times. Practically every conversation I have ends up coming back to one thing: the importance of helping people find meaning in and through their work. The cynic in me is tempted to write this off as the by-product of a decade of strong economic performance; people are getting jaded by material wealth and are looking for more spirituality in their jobs - it’s nothing a sharp downturn won’t cure.
But it goes deeper than that and it isn’t just limited to a few ageing hippies facing up to their mid-life crises, either. Whatever the causes, organisations are having to confront the fact that the psychological contract has changed once again and employees are increasingly expecting their workplaces to perform an enabling function - to help them find meaning in what they do.
The good news is that this can take many forms. Corporate social responsibility is already an important tool in the armoury of many leading grocery businesses - Tesco and Northern Foods’ web sites both have corporate social responsibility click-throughs on their home pages, for example, while Sainsbury’s is one click away on its corporate home page. Whitbread and Cadbury Trebor Bassett are among the best-practice case studies on the CSR web site www.employee, while M&S was one of the winners in last year’s Business in the Community awards.
But ‘meaning’ doesn’t have to be about painting the local community centre or even spending a year on an aid project. Last month I was lucky enough to sit through a presentation by American academic and author Robert Quinn, whose books include Deep Change. His central thesis is that we spend most of our time stuck securely in our comfort zones, shutting out signals that it’s time for change, focusing on our own interests rather than the greater good, and relying on our material possessions, or other people’s opinions, to define ourselves, rather than looking inside for our ‘real’ selves.
In a crisis, though, we learn to overturn some or all of those four conditions - and that’s when we experience what Quinn calls “the fundamental state of leadership”. And once we’ve been there - as most of us have, at some stage in our lives - it doesn’t take a crisis to return to that state of mind. It’s a journey we can choose to make by constantly asking questions such as ‘Am I choosing the path of least resistance?’ when we have a decision to take.
Quinn has an arresting image he uses to illustrate his ideas. “There are my values,” he says, “and there’s how I actually behave. The gap between the two is my hypocrisy and I carry that around with me in an imaginary garbage can. From time to time I take the lid off that garbage can - and the smell is so awful it forces me to close one of those gaps.”
I’m a card-carrying sceptic about most things, but Quinn’s ideas, which are rooted in well-established psychological theory, really resonated with me. They show that people can find meaning at work whatever they do, wherever they do it.
Smart employers are now finding ways to help them on that journey.
n Steve Crabb is editor of People Management