Can we reimagine the workplace as an engine for well-being? When the US Surgeon General published an official framework for mental health in the workplace last month, it suggested as much.
The framework outlines five essentials that spin that engine’s cylinders and shoot off its pistons, from tenets like community and connection to work-life harmony. But it surfaces a less conventional component, too: mattering at work. People want to know that they matter to those around them, the report writes—and that their work matters, too.
We’re in a crisis of mattering. For one, Gallup finds that 25% of American workers report being totally ignored at work. In another study by Mind Share Partners, 84% of surveyed US workers said that their job had contributed to at least one mental health challenge—and a quarter of them pointed to a lack of recognition as the reason why.
✋ The matter at hand
“Experts know how to count almost everything: CO₂ emissions, the size of urban slum populations, the contribution tourism makes to every country’s economy, and even the number of trees in the Sahara desert,” writes Gallup’s Jon Clifton in Blind Spot, released this fall. “But while experts seem to count almost everything, they don’t systematically measure how people feel.”
Clifton’s writing is based in Gallup’s Global Emotions reporting, an annual study that’s surveyed well-being around the world since 2006. 2021 marked a concerning shift: this past year recorded new highs for global stress, worry, and sadness.
So how do we fix it? Clifton argues that we should take a critical, measured look at well-being and mattering, which is linked to lower stress, less worry, and bolstered belonging.
💡 Why mattering matters
If you’re familiar with Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, known as a landmark model of human development, you may remember the pinnacle of its pyramid: self-actualization, the feeling that we’ve become everything we’re capable of becoming.
But towards the end of his life, Maslow didn’t actually see self-actualization as the true top of the model. In fact, just before his death, he amended it to include a new concept: self-transcendence, or having a sense of meaning in what you do. When we feel that our work has meaning, and that what we do matters, we’re filling a higher purpose. And whether you’re a teammate, a manager, or building company culture, you can foster meaning—for both yourself and others.
👯♂️ What teammates can do
Swap stories and empathize. As one of the first responders on the scene of trauma, 911 dispatchers face high degrees of stress and burnout on the job. So researchers at U.C. Berkeley set out to measure how recognition could help.
They established a program for 500 dispatchers across nine cities: a weekly newsletter that spotlighted one responder, offered reflections on their experiences, and encouraged others to write in with their own stories to share. By telling their stories and relating to those of others, these critical workers reported a built-up sense of belonging—and results suggested that the practice could reduce turnover by up to 50%.
Some workplaces share stories about mistakes they’ve made with practices like failure forums. But if you want to build belonging, you should also make deliberate time to surface sharing and gratitude for what was done right.
The technique: Work with your team to set up a recurring story hour, whether that’s a weekly wins circle, a regular lunch gathering, or a team-wide communication that lands in everyone’s inboxes.
The takeaway: You can boost belonging and meaning among your peers when you take the time to swap and share.
💭 What managers can do
Flip the metrics of mattering. In 2012, two medical professionals proposed a radical reimagining of care for patients that rested on just one question. Instead of just asking what was the matter, they argued, clinicians should add another inquiry to the mix: “What matters to you?”
By turning this question around, the authors advocated that the doctor in the room could relinquish an outdated role as the single authority, and instead become a coach and collaborator in their patient’s well-being. That flip mattered for seven-year-old Kendra, a surgery patient who had autism and couldn’t speak. After an emergency left her alone in the hospital, a drawing she’d made to show what mattered to her—like how she loved stroking hair to say hello and feared medicine by her mouth—became an essential guide for the staff to give her care.
As a manager, making your team feel valued can be a product of asking the right questions. Don’t just tell your team what matters: let them tell you.
The technique: Spin your next one-on-one around and let your direct reports take the lead. Ask them what goals they want to achieve and what milestones matter to them—and coach them there.
The takeaway: You can chart the course of your team by asking them to set the path.
🪜 What companies can do
Set standards for great jobs. Back in Blind Spot, Jon Clifton argues for quantifiable measures that don’t simply mark good jobs, but great jobs—and ranks companies and countries for meaningful work. That, he writes, “will inspire leaders to work relentlessly to improve that number authentically.” While organizations work on that, start building your own internal standards.
Plenty of assessments exist to help you get started. For one, the NIOSH Worker Well-Being Questionnaire treats the worker holistically, rather than measuring just work or the workplace itself.
When you ask your employees how they feel, you communicate that those feelings matter—and signal, with standards built over time, that you’re committed to continuous improvement.
The technique: Consider a communication and measurement tool like the 5-15. Each week, everyone will spend 15 minutes filling out feedback in a template for your team’s manager. After spending five minutes reading and responding to each report, that manager will take 15 minutes to write their own feedback for their manager, with rounds continuing up the chain.
The takeaway: Creating a rhythm for updates can provide us with valuable data at the team level—along with insight into how bigger systems are moving things forward.
🔢 Making it count
When we feel like our work is meaningful and we matter in the jobs we do, we’re set up for a better sense of well-being in and out of the workplace. And that’s key for bolstering mental health whether we’re on the job or not.
📚 More resources for the me and we of work
🪢 How to foster a culture of belonging at work—and why it’s not the same as feeling similar to everyone else.
📞 The best thing you can say to keep employees happy? It’s your call.
🕹 The next big perk for Gen Z isn’t in the office: it’s belonging.
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This edition of The Memo was brought to you by:
✨ Our deputy editor, Gabriela Riccardi, who’s feeling a little more transcendent already.
💛 Our editor, Anna Oakes, who believes Gabby matters. And so does Gabby’s work.
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