Bored at work? Redesign your job

Last September, the networking site LinkedIn added a feature that allowed its members to say whether they wanted to volunteer or serve on the board of a non-profit. In just eight months, one million members raised their virtual hands.

But here's the rub. LinkedIn has posted only about 1,000 listings seeking volunteers. That can't begin to meet the demand from those on the site who are looking for ways to volunteer.

In much of the non-profit world, there are more volunteers than there are spots. Staff workers don't have time to manage more volunteers. This oversupply of volunteers masks a broader problem in our society. It points to the lack of purpose that we experience in our jobs. As Dr Jessica B. Rodell, a professor at the University of Georgia, has found in her research, "when jobs are less meaningful, employees are more likely to increase volunteering to gain that desired sense of meaning". The numbers speak for themselves. In a recent Gallup poll, 70 per cent of American workers said they were not engaged with their jobs or were actively disengaged.

Like so many people, I used to believe gaining purpose in life was about finding my cause.

In the 13 years that I ran the Taproot Foundation, a non-profit that enrols professionals in pro bono service and builds volunteer programmes for companies, I discovered that they were all driven by the need for purpose. Our consultants and corporate partners consistently said that their pro bono projects provided their most rewarding work.

The satisfaction they expressed came from contributing to something greater than themselves, but was also about the opportunity for the self-expression and personal growth that such work enabled. They also found purpose in working with other professionals on their pro bono team who were going through the same experience.

But if people are finding satisfaction in self-expression and personal growth, as well as teamwork, then that suggests that they don't have to search outside of work for meaning. Because it wasn't the non-profit's larger goals that gave them meaning; it was the way they performed their work. And research confirms that it is possible for many people to find purpose in work, primarily through making a choice about how to approach it. Having a purpose isn't necessarily about what a company makes or sells, but rather, it's about how the workers approach their day.

Indeed, working in a non-profit is no guarantee of having meaning in your daily life. Many non-profit employees lack purpose in their work. Their organisation may be doing inspiring work in the world, but the day-to-day job doesn't generate much involvement.

Finding meaning is about being engaged. When Professor Amy Wrzesniewski, an associate professor at Yale, and Professor Jane E. Dutton, of the University of Michigan, along with other researchers, looked at workers in a wide range of organisations, from hospital cleaners to managers, they found several ways in which workers crafted purpose in each profession. Their findings reinforced previous research that had demonstrated that the ways individuals viewed work might be more tied to their personality traits than to the work itself. They infuse their work with purpose learnt from past experiences. How they view work may largely be driven by the role models they had growing up. Some see it as merely a chore in their lives, while others view it as the core of life.

That doesn't mean you're sunk if you didn't grow up with role models who found purpose in work. It's possible to redesign your job to make it better align with your values, strengths and passions. You can set goals for yourself to build mastery of the specific tasks you enjoy.

Companies such as Cornerstone Capital Group have begun to adopt changes to increase employee purpose. Ms Erika Karp, the chief executive, told me that she asked her employees whether they had a good day and to identify moments that made it so. She then works with them to refine their job, making small adjustments to change their engagement at work and boost their meaning. This is an even greater imperative with young people. In a 2011 report by Harris Interactive, commissioned by the Career Advisory Board, meaning was the top career priority for those between the ages of 21 and 31.

We cannot meet this demand by looking to "causes" as the primary driver in our careers and place the burden on non-profits to fulfil this need. Instead, we need to look to ourselves and cultivate self-awareness to take ownership for creating purpose in our work.