Meaningful Work and ‘Existential Labour’

night-461707_640I am heading off to Auckland, New Zealand, in a few days’ time where I am co-organising a symposium on meaningful work with my wonderful colleagues Marjo Lips-Wiersma (AUT), Ruth Yeoman and Marc Thompson (Oxford), Adrian Madden (Greenwich) and Neal Chalofsky (George Washington).  We are delighted so many researchers and policy makers from around the world are joining us at the event. There will be more than 30 papers and workshops over two days, and the level of interest  is testament to the growing importance of meaningfulness not just as a topic of research, but more importantly as the kind of work that everyone should be able to enjoy.

Sadly, we only have to look around us to see that a great deal of work is anything but meaningful. Meaninglessness is often associated with poor management practices. Failing to recognize employees’ efforts, pressurizing them to work unprofessionally, or treating them unfairly can all lead to people asking, ‘what’s the point?’

In a paper I wrote with my colleagues Adrian Madden, Kerstin Alfes, Amanda Shantz and Emma Soane that was published this week, we took this a stage further and asked what happens when employers do actively seek to manage the meaningfulness employees experience in their work, but do so in such a way that the intended outcomes are for example higher levels of performance or more effort, rather than genuine meaningfulness?  We suggested that under such circumstances employees are likely to engage in ‘existential labour’, in other words, to act ‘as if’ their work is meaningful, paying lip-service to managerial prerogatives, while actually feeling cynical and distanced from their work. We pointed to the likely negative outcomes of this for both employers and employees.

What we have argued is that although trying to manage meaningfulness is often a laudable aim, it has to be done in an authentic and genuine way that enables employees to find their own meaningfulness, rather than imposing meaningfulness on them. This is because what is meaningful to each of us is highly subjective and deeply personal. In the research I’ve done with Adrian Madden, what we’ve found is that when people talk about what is meaningful in their work, they often talk about their families or their friends, or their lives outside work, and how their work is connected with bigger, transcendent life themes that matter deeply to them, rather than just the job itself.

So, we can’t be told what to find meaningful about our work, but we can work in environments that are conducive to us finding our own meaning.

‘The mis-managed soul: existential labour and the erosion of meaningful work’

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