From a Job to a Calling, Finding Meaning in Your Work

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Article by: Damaris Agweyu

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Is it possible for a cleaner to find more meaning in their work than a doctor? The answer is yes.  After conducting studies at a hospital, Amy Wrzesniewski, professor of organizational behaviour at the Yale School of Management found that cleaners and doctors were equally likely to view their work as a job, a career or a calling. The difference was in their perspective.

Wrzesniewsk discovered that there were two groups of cleaners. The first group simply went through the motions, viewing their jobs as meaningless, unskilled and unsatisfying. The second group, however, held the complete opposite perspective. They found it deeply meaningful and thought of themselves as being highly skilled. They didn’t just think they were cleaners in the technical ‘this is tough and unpleasant work that somebody has to do so I might as well do it since I don’t have a choice’ sense. They viewed themselves as ambassadors of the organisation they worked for, helpers of the vulnerable, healers of the sick.

It's not part of my job, it's part of me

While the first group described their work only according to the job description they had been given; the second group talked about cleaning rooms but they also talked about paying attention to patients. They looked out for which ones seemed most upset, which ones were not getting visitors, which ones were deteriorating and in need of comfort. They went on to have conversations with them, find ways to brighten their mood and give them opportunities to express their feelings. In other words, they did everything in their power to find meaning and purpose not just for themselves but also for those they served.

One of the cleaners from the second group worked in the ward for patients who were in comas and she took exceptional pride in her work. She would regularly switch around the pictures that hung on the walls, changing up the environments in the different rooms. She thought that some aspect about changing the environment of the patients that were unconscious might stimulate their brains and spark recovery in some way.

Was her theory correct?


Were her actions part of her job?

Absolutely not.

Why do it then, she was asked. Her answer: it’s not part of my job, it’s part of me.

Other cleaners in this group of purposeful workers devoted time to learning about the chemicals they used for cleaning rooms and figuring out which were least likely to irritate patients’ conditions.

Was this part of their job?

You guessed it.

So why did they do it?

Well, for one, they understood this fact: purpose is not given, it is built. By focusing on the people they helped, rather than the checking items off their Job description list, this focus group of cleaners were building their jobs to suit their purpose. The result: They transformed their work from a job into a calling.


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