Date of release: Thursday, January 26, 2017

Meaningful WorkCompanies which seek to boost staff performance and morale by forcing "meaning" into employees' work run the risk of alienating their workforce, a new study suggests.

Recently published in the Human Resource Management Review journal, the research was co-authored by Dr Adrian Madden from the University of Greenwich's Business School

It found that strategies designed to manipulate how much meaning employees find in their work — such as encouraging workers to adopt organisational values, to support good causes and to link work to a wider purpose — can end up actually hurting an individual's performance, and damaging the organisation as a whole.

Dr Madden, Senior Lecturer in Employment Relations, says: "Our research into the nature of meaningful work is helping to reveal something about the ways in which we respond to the intense demands of modern work.

"We've previously shown in other published research that the experience of meaningful work is a very personal thing. While organisations can do very little directly to make people find their work meaningful, they can certainly destroy any prospect of it – for example, by disregarding an employee's values, by not valuing skills or experience, or taking them for granted by not recognising their contribution.

"In some situations, where promotion, reward or even job security is dependent on workers behaving as if their work is meaningful, we suggest efforts to manage meaningfulness can lead to what we call 'existential labour'. This means that people have to invest their emotional energies in ways that do not reflect their personal feelings, like a sense of emotional disonance. This can lead to all sorts of negative outcomes, including poor performance, stress or exhaustion, and employees wanting to leave the organisation."

Led by Professor Catherine Bailey from the University of Sussex, the study highlights two forms of 'acting' that employees use when employers make an effort to manage the meaningfulness of their work: surface existential acting and deep existential acting.

Surface existential acting is when employees act in line with expectations at work, even if their true values and beliefs are different. Deep existential acting is when workers attempt to alter their own sense of what is meaningful in order to more closely align with their employer's wishes.

The research concludes that both types of acting can cause problems for individuals and organisations.

A member of the university's Department of Human Resources and Organisational Behaviour, Dr Madden adds: "Finding your work meaningful does not mean having a particular kind of job or certain conditions of work. We found even people doing repetitive, manual labour could find work meaningful. The important thing for managers is to try to create an environment in which employees can see the value of what their employees do and the difference that their work makes, even if the opportunities to do so are limited." 

The study's other co-authors are Dr Amanda Shantz, Reader of Human Resources and Organisational Behaviour, University of Greenwich; Professor Kerstin Alfes, from ESCP Europe in Germany; and Dr Emma Soane, an Assistant Professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

The mismanaged soul: Existential labor and the erosion of meaningful work:

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Story by Public Relations