Episode 2: The Science Behind Meaningful Work with Dr. Gabriella Kellerman

Front co-founder and CEO Mathilde Collin is on a quest to understand how companies can help their teams find meaning in their work. In this episode, Mathilde sat down with Dr. Gabriella Kellerman, Chief Innovation Officer at BetterUp. Dr. Kellerman shares the psychology behind finding happiness and fulfillment in the workplace.


MATHILDE COLLIN: Hi everyone. I'm Mathilde, and I'm the CEO and co-founder of a company called Front. I started this company because I wanted more people to come to work everyday and be happy about it. So, a few years ago I started a quest so that I could understand better what makes people happy at work, what helped them find meaning.

I've been meeting with people that have an interesting perspective on finding meaning and happiness at work. So, today I'm super excited to have Dr. Gabriella Kellerman who is Chief Innovation Officer at BetterUp. She has spent a lot of her life thinking about meaningful work. For example, last year, she published with her team a research that shows the link and the strong connection between meaning, purpose at work, and strong business outcomes. So, today I am super excited to dig deeper into all the research that you've done. Thank you for being here.

GABRIELLA KELLERMAN: Thanks for having me. It's great to be here.

MATHILDE COLLIN: So, I guess the first thing that I'd love to hear from you is it feels to me that a few decades ago when I was talking to my parents, and my grandparents, they weren't obsessing as much as I am or as other people from my generation about meaningful work. So, when do you think people started caring about finding meaning in the work and why?

GABRIELLA KELLERMAN: Yeah, great question. So, there seem to be two trends that have come together historically to result in this kind of cultural phenomenon of looking for meaning at work. So, the first is it's new in human history that we have a choice in the kind of work that we get to do. For most of our existence as a species, you did what your parents did and probably what hundreds of generations before you did. Whether that was being a hunter gatherer, a farmer, even when we became kind of factory workers and miners, there were long periods of time where you just kept doing what the people before you did. And we know that people did find work meaningful historically. It's natural that if you're spending the bulk of your living hours doing one activity over and over again, you're going to find some connection to it. But they weren't going out to find a profession that would maximize their meaning. That is new. And it has a lot to do with the fact that we have choice now. So, we actually have the luxury of being able to add that in as a decision criteria.

And then the other trend is the disappearance of religion in western civilization. So, there's been a huge decline in our affiliation with religion, our religious practices. But what hasn't declined is our desire for spirituality and for meaning for a broader sense of purpose. And so it's only that that's going to start to migrate to the venue where we spend most of our waking hours and work and become part of what informs how we decide, how we spend our time.

MATHILDE COLLIN: Great. Fascinating. So, I guess my question is: how do you define meaningful work? And when people are telling you I'm looking for meaning, what do you think are the ingredients that contribute to them finding their job meaningful?

GABRIELLA KELLERMAN: Great. So, there are typically three different parts of the definition of meaningful work and we can speak about all of them at once, which is usually colloquially what we do, or you can kind of break them down. So, the three are significance, coherence, and purpose. Significance is, I feel that I matter. I feel that my time here on earth is worth it. Coherence is a sense of being part of something bigger. So, I feel that my existence meshes with the purpose of the universe in some way. And then purpose is I have a particular goal or mission that's driving me and animating me. And people can mean any of these things or all of these things when they talk about meaning.

In terms of the drivers of meaning at work, there are seven known drivers based on looking at all the evidence of what people volunteer as the source of meaning for them. Some of the big ones are a sense of personal growth. So, we come to work wanting to know that we're going to grow as a human being through that journey at work. Professional growth is another source and separate source. So, feeling that you grow in your career. But actually, is not as important a driver as personal growth. And then just a few others to round it out. A sense of feeling that our work is in service of others. A sense of shared meaning is very important. So, feeling that we share this sense of our work being meaningful with our coworkers and that we also share the value that our work should be meaningful with our coworkers and with our leaders. And the last one I'll mention is his inspiration. Feeling inspired by your leaders is a huge driver of what makes people find their work meaningful.

MATHILDE COLLIN: Right. So, it feels to me in the list that you just shared, there are some where as an individual I can maybe influence them and there are some where I can't because the company I'm working for or the organization I'm working for is responsible for bringing leaders that can inspire me, for example. So, maybe we can look at both and the individual and then the organization. So, as an individual, if I'm thinking about this seven criteria that you've shared and I feel like I'm not the happiest, most fulfilled version of myself, and I want to find more meaning. What would be your advice to me in helping me achieve this thing that I can control?

GABRIELLA KELLERMAN: Yeah. Great. So, on the topic of meaning and purpose, many people don't have a great degree of clarity on what their animating purpose is. They also may not have a great degree of clarity on their core values. And it's just not something we spend a lot of time sitting down to think about and really get clear on. So, that's the first thing that I would do and that I do with folks on my team. And actually as a manager or a leader of others, it's important that you be able to speak to what drives each individual sense of meaningful work in order to help them be happy and thriving in their workplace. So, as an individual getting clear on that and then figuring out how your work does or does not align with it. There's always ways to turn your current situation into something that, at the very minimum, advances you more toward finding that meaning and purpose or finding more opportunities in your career to have that meaning and purpose. And best case scenario, where you feel deeply fulfilled in the work you're currently doing, as actually informing that.

MATHILDE COLLIN: That makes sense. So, I'm an individual and I will spend a lot of time thinking about the values that I hear about and I will try to find what I think is driving me as a human being and then see how it matches the work that I am currently doing.


MATHILDE COLLIN: So, now I'm a leader in an organization and I want to make sure that everyone in the organization can find their job more meaningful. What would be your advice for any leader, whether it's a CEO, also a manager, on helping their team find more meaning?

GABRIELLA KELLERMAN: Yeah. So, there is a ton that you can do and ideally you want to start from understanding what is and isn't working in your current scenario. But as kind of a guiding principle, we see that the managers and the leaders of people, the sense in which they embody the importance of meaningful work is going to have a dramatic impact on whether people actually find their jobs meaningful and whether they find satisfaction in their jobs overall.

So, spending time both with your senior leadership and with your frontline leaders to empower them to understand the importance of meaningful work and to understand what it looks and sounds like to embody that as a leader is really important. It's not rocket science. Speak about how you find meaning. Make clear to people what about your work is driving you in a broader, deeper, more existential sense. And then spend time one-on-one with the people on your team. Understanding that, for them, it's going to unlock so much about where people are getting blocked. Going to open up so much discretionary effort for each individual.

MATHILDE COLLIN: How frequent do you think these conversations should be? So, whether they're one-on-ones or a new group setting, what would be your recommendation?

GABRIELLA KELLERMAN: I think definitely it's important when you're first establishing a relationship with a new team member to have that conversation pretty early on. And it's a great way to deepen that relationship really quickly and show that you're invested in that individual as a human being.

Coming back to it. Certainly if you ever are sensing that something has changed for them, that there's something new or something's not quite connecting, you should ask about it. But one or two times a year is probably enough to check in. And then in general when you're doing your check-ins and feedback and touch points, asking about how fulfilled they feel by the work that they're doing, you probably have a hypothesis about it. 'Cause if you know what they find meaningful and how they're spending their time, you can have a good conversation about it. That's a good opportunity to see if things have shifted.

MATHILDE COLLIN: Right. So, one topic that you've researched a lot and talked about is the impact of doing this exercise at a company level on the health of your business. So, I'd be curious to see what you've seen in terms of benefits of doing this work.

GABRIELLA KELLERMAN: Sure. So, fortunately helping people find meaning at work is very much in service of the bottom line. So, what we've found is that people who find work highly meaningful, they are more productive; they get more promotions, more raises. They're less likely to quit their jobs. They take fewer sick days off, both voluntary and involuntary days off. And so we've taken all that data and quantified it. If you imagine a workforce of 10,000 people and you imagine taking that workforce and maximizing meaning for them, we estimate that that will add an additional $82 million in productivity gains. And then save you $55 million in turnover costs. And then there's tens of thousands of save days in not being absent because people are so fulfilled by the work that they're doing.

MATHILDE COLLIN: Right. So, if I can save $55 million, well we don't have 10,000 dollars, but...

GABRIELLA KELLERMAN: Just divide. Divide by whatever you need to.

MATHILDE COLLIN: Well, it seems like a no brainer that companies should invest in this. So, what have you seen being the biggest reasons why companies would not spend the time to help employees be happy and find meaning?

GABRIELLA KELLERMAN: Yeah. There definitely are still a good number of companies who aren't bought in to this idea. They don't feel compelled by the data or the evidence. And usually the leaders themselves don't feel it internally. It's not a priority for them. And so, they're not making it a priority for the organization. In some cases they don't realize that there are reliable ways to help people with this problem. So, they may be bought in but they don't think there's anything they can do about it. So, they'd rather work on something else. And then there are cases where they actually are trying to work on it, but just maybe not in a truly evidence-based way or maybe not in a way that's going to scale for the impact that you're looking for.

It's also a bit of an intimidating topic. So, this is a very deeply personal topic and lots of people aren't comfortable having deeply personal conversations at work. So, that's a barrier.

MATHILDE COLLIN: Have you seen sizes of companies or industries that are more likely to have these kinds of initiatives?

GABRIELLA KELLERMAN: It's interesting. We see in tech and finance more interest. They tend to be leading in this. But we've seen leaders in retail, in manufacturing and energy, really across the board there are leaders who are really passionate about this. So, it's not that it doesn't apply to any industry, but probably tech and finance are a bit out ahead as a group.

MATHILDE COLLIN: Yeah, that makes sense. So, if you're an organization that's just wanting to get started because you've watched this video and now you're convinced this is a good investment, how would you recommend getting started?

GABRIELLA KELLERMAN: Yeah. As a leader of an organization, you've got to start having the conversation yourself. Expressing that this matters to you and you're going to do something to make sure that it's a big part of your culture and a part of every employee's experience. And then from there, ideally you're spending time both with your senior leadership and enabling your frontline leadership. Where you're going to get that maximum impact in terms of creating a work environment for people where they know that leadership cares about this and they feel empowered and emboldened to talk about it, to make decisions on the basis of their sense of meaning and purpose.

MATHILDE COLLIN: That makes sense. What one topic related to meaningful words that I've been very interested in is one thing that I feel is, when people find their jobs super meaningful and when they care a lot, they tend to work more. And that can get in the way of being happy. So, I don't know if that's something that you've seen. And if you've seen this, what would be your recommendation for either organizations or individual to make sure that they also spend the time outside of work to recharge?

GABRIELLA KELLERMAN: Yeah, it's such a great question. So, on the one hand, people who are really engaged in their work find a lot of energy from the work they're doing. So, they want to put in more time. They're almost addicted to their work. And then on the other hand, working too much is not good for any of us. So, how do you find that balance? We have not found that people who find work more meaningful are more burned out or anything like that. But what we do see is that for people who are really deeply engaged with their work, it's easy to miss the early signals of burnout.

So, they show they're still putting in tons of time. They still are enjoying what they're doing, but they can, under conditions of extreme stress and high increased job demands, start to verge into burnout. And they can actually coexist in a state of being both engaged and burned out for a steady period of time before you see the engagement drop. And then it's clear, oh, this person's just burned out. So, it's really important for managers to be able to keep an active pulse. These are typically high performers who are really valued members of your team. Making sure that they are taking that time off to recharge and taking care of themselves and not losing sight of the bigger picture of their wellbeing, which is going to inform the sustainability of their career, even in something they really passionate about.

MATHILDE COLLIN: Right. I'm just curious, what are the early signs of burned out? I'm checking for myself.

GABRIELLA KELLERMAN: So, exhaustion is certainly a sign. Having a tough time bouncing back from challenges. So, the more burnout we get, the less resilient. Later signs, but these are when you really want to start paying attention cause it's getting to be an important situation, is people feeling less connected to the environment, more cynical about what's going on, less aligned with leadership, feeling a distance that is kind of a barrier they're putting up between them and this environment that's not good for them. So, when you start to see people kind of checking out from the company, that actually can be a big part of burnout.

MATHILDE COLLIN: Yeah, that makes sense. I'm curious to know, do you find your job meaningful?


MATHILDE COLLIN: Have you always found your job meaningful?

GABRIELLA KELLERMAN: So, I've always believed that work should be meaningful. I was fortunate to come from a family that really valued education. And so, most of the available funds that we had went to my education, my brother's education. And I always felt like I had to do something really valuable for society with that education. And the first road that I took was in medicine. So, I'm an MD. I started out in psychiatry, both clinical work and research. And it's interesting because when you think about meaningful work, many people immediately will think about something like being a doctor. And it is an extremely meaningful calling. But, the current healthcare system in this country is actually really challenging for doctors. Straining even for them to find meaning in their work because of all of the bureaucracy, the limitations on what they can and can't do. And so, it's one of the only industries where we see a split between feeling your work is meaningful and feeling connected to your employer.

So, most doctors feel their work is very meaningful and do not feel connected to their organizations. They feel they could just do that work anywhere. And if anything, they may see the organizations as a hindrance to them. So, I experienced that myself and felt that there had to be a better way for me to be able to impact the lives and the wellbeing of people more broadly. So, it took me some time and I think a very modern leap of faith that a hundred years ago I never would have had the opportunity to look for something new to do with my career. But, that's the luxury that we're afforded living today in this society. And I'm thrilled to have landed in a place where there's so much appetite for science and for innovation and for advancing the better men of all of us.

MATHILDE COLLIN: Yeah. So, we've talked about how through conversations, through being more introspective and even some processes like having one-on-ones, you as a leader or as an individual can bring more meaning to your life, and to the life of others. So, six years ago I started this company called Front and one of the thing that I wanted to do is by making one of the tools that people use the most to get work done, which is email, by making it better. And by better, I mean, I want people to have more impact when they use it. I want people to feel like their belonging because their team is right there with them where work happens. What I want to do with this is I want to be able, through technology and through the tool that we use, to bring more of this meaning to work. And so, we've not talked about how technology or how the tools, how innovation can also help with people finding more meaning. So, have you seen any interesting trends in this direction?

GABRIELLA KELLERMAN: That's a good question. So, trends around how technology is able to make work more meaningful for people.

So, we know that feeling socially supported and feeling a sense of connection and belonging to others is a really important part of wellbeing and is very connected to meaning. So, people who feel socially supported at work experience are about 47% more likely to feel that their work is meaningful.

So, to the extent that these tools are able to bring that kind of social support to each other, I think that's definitely showing up in things like gratitude tools or tools where our ability to serve others is clear, as with something like Front. The flip side is that, of course, we know that devices and certain kinds of social interactions online have the ability to alienate us from each other. So, that's the only counterbalance there. But certainly we've done some great research with Sonja Lyubomirsky at UC Riverside, looking at how all kinds of media are able to support social connection and a deep sense of appreciation, which is a component of meaning for sure.

MATHILDE COLLIN: Yeah. And I'm sure that with the trend being that more and more teams are distributed, more and more people are remote, I think like fostering this sense of belonging will become more and more important.


MATHILDE COLLIN: I know we're at the end of our time, so do you have any last words of wisdom for anyone that has enjoyed this conversation and really wants to find more meaning in their life?

GABRIELLA KELLERMAN: Yes, I have two. So, the first is one of the best ways to work on finding meaning is with a coach. And if you don't have a coach, it's an invaluable resource and most companies have some degree of coaching available. If your manager is not able to provide for you, then I would look out for a coach to help you gain clarity on your sense of purpose and values.

I also did want to share that our research has found that as we grow older, we find our work more meaningful. And it's not that we're doing fundamentally different things, but we gained perspective such that we can appreciate the value of lots of different kinds of tasks and ways of engaging. And so, one of the implications of that is it's great to spend time with colleagues who are older and gain from their wisdom. But another is that you can actually access your future self's wisdom just by spending time thinking about how you, toward the end of your life, will reflect on the time you're spending today. And it's very clarifying to understand whether you feel that that time is best spent in the way that you are spending it now, whether there's more that you can do. It also typically puts things in a really healthy perspective that takes away some of the noise around finding value in how you are spending your time.

So, my last words of wisdom would be access your future self's wisdom or the wisdom of of trusted older colleagues around you.

MATHILDE COLLIN: Great. Thank you so much for one, spending so much of your time thinking about it, and helping individuals and organizations find more meaning. And thanks so much for coming here. It was a wonderful interview.

GABRIELLA KELLERMAN: Thank you so much. It was my pleasure.