The pandemic has turned the world upside down. With the nature of work in crisis, how can HR help set things right?
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought new esteem to many blue-collar jobs. Social distancing, panic buying and increased risk of infection saw delivery riders, shelf stockers and checkout assistants get hailed as resilient heroes engaging in dangerous work. But even as the work became more meaningful to society, did it become more meaningful to the workers?
Finding purpose in work is part of what it means to be human, so it’s not surprising that a whole area of academia has wrestled with questions like this.
“It’s hard to motivate yourself to go to work if you don’t think it means anything or it doesn’t matter,” says Professor Katie Bailey, head of the HRM and Employment Relations Group at King’s Business School, King’s College London, who has written several papers on the topic.
The literature often refers to Viktor Frankl’s theory of ‘the will to meaning’. Frankl, a Holocaust survivor who saw both prisoners and guards in a concentration camp find meaning in their roles, believed the drive for meaning is a primary motivational force for mankind.
He wrote: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
But meaningfulness isn’t the same as meaning, says Bailey. “We look to see what meaning things have – events, institutions – and what they mean to us. So your work, for example, could mean to you that you have a source of income, but it might not necessarily be meaningful.”
There is also a difference between job satisfaction and meaningfulness. The former applies if you can say of your work, “It’s a fine way to make a living.” The latter applies if your job connects you with something larger than yourself. You have to answer positively to questions such as, “Do I make a difference?”
The feeling of ‘Why am I bothering to do this?’ strikes people the instant a meaningless moment arises, and it strikes people hard.
But why should organisations care about any of this?
Well, research has found that meaningfulness is powerful. There are links between it and workers having better behavioural outcomes (commitment, intrinsic motivation, etc); better performance outcomes (organisational reputation, creativity, etc); and better individual outcomes (increased resilience, reduced stress, feeling happier, etc).
There have even been attempts to define its monetary value. Nine out of 10 workers in the United States were willing to give up an average of 23 per cent of their lifetime earnings in exchange for always having a job that is meaningful, according to a 2018 report from HR tech company BetterUp. It also found the increased effort offered by workers in meaningful jobs translates into an extra US$9,078 per worker per year in revenue, and a further US$6.43 million saved in reduced turnover costs per 10,000 workers.
Such sweeping benefits have drawn the attention of leaders across the globe, and many organisations have attempted to harness them. But meaningfulness is not something companies can simply manufacture.
In an article Bailey wrote for MIT Sloan, she relays the findings of qualitative interviews she did with a wide range of people, including garbage collectors, lawyers and priests.
She learned people didn’t tend to talk about their organisation or managers when relaying moments of meaningfulness. Where they did get a mention was when it came to destroying meaningfulness, which they can do “easily”.
“The feeling of ‘Why am I bothering to do this?’ strikes people the instant a meaningless moment arises, and it strikes people hard,” she writes. “If meaningfulness is a delicate flower that requires careful nurturing, think of someone trampling over that flower in a pair of steel-toed boots.”
Despite this, thinking about meaning is worth the time of organisations and HR professionals. Not just for the possible bottom-line benefits, but because it’s a framework that could improve the lives of entire workforces. To return to Bailey’s metaphor, while organisations can’t create meaningfulness, they can nurture it.
As you would expect, the frameworks for meaningfulness vary. The one Bailey and her colleagues developed focuses not on how people find meaning but where they find it.
It breaks the concept down into four domains or sources: job tasks, job role, interactions and the organisation itself. To ground these things, let’s explain how they would operate with an assistant at a fashion retailer.
‘Job tasks’ are day-to-day duties. What has been found to make them more meaningful is allowing a worker to use a variety of skills, for their tasks to be important to the organisation, and for staff to have control and visibility over a whole process (also called ‘task identity’).
If our assistant only restocks clothes, he would likely find his job less meaningful. It’s a repetitive task anyone could do, using a single skill. His colleague, who assists customers, is doing more to realise the organisation’s goal. But if our assistant also helps customers and finalises sales, he could have all three. His more boring, repetitive task fits into a larger journey he controls.
There is also a theory that people are motivated by prosocial tasks that contribute to a greater good. Advising customers to purchase more sustainable fashion could be such a thing.
Job role is more than a title; it’s the norms and expectations placed upon you. Meaningfulness here comes in two forms: from the alignment of the role with your perception of yourself, and the sense that others find your role valuable or impressive. If our assistant loves fashion and is starting out in their career, he might identify easily with his role.
It’s less likely he will derive much meaning from the value others place on the role. So it is here that we perhaps find an explanation for the trend towards vaguer, more impressive-sounding titles. For example, Subway’s ‘sandwich artists’ are a laughable attempt to give those employees more meaningfulness. If our assistant’s organisation were to call him a ‘fashion expert’, it would want to make sure his norms, expectations and training were enough to make the assistant and others believe the title is more than hot air.
‘Interactions’ also breaks down into two parts. The first is the social aspect of work.
We are driven to create a shared identity and a sense of belonging and togetherness with colleagues, and we treasure it if we succeed. Also, being part of a group that we think is worthwhile increases self-esteem. If our sales assistant truly bonds with his colleagues – they share in-jokes, step up to cover each other’s shifts, etc – and he thinks of them as a clique that’s worth being a member of, he will find his job more meaningful.
The other part of interactions is the feeling that your work helps or is appreciated by others. It could be a manager or colleague, and certainly if hard work goes unappreciated we quickly find it meaningless. But client and customer appreciation are also meaningful. This links with job identity. If our sales assistant’s sole responsibility is stock, he will not experience the gratitude of customers, even though, ultimately, he’s helping them.
This is a challenge for a lot of roles. Organisations could help factory workers find their work more meaningful, for example, if they found ways to get them talking to customers, or at least find a way to demonstrate the customer’s appreciation.
This form of interaction isn’t limited to customers. Some garbage collectors, Bailey discovered, found meaning in the thought that their work was making the world cleaner for future generations. One organisation fostered this by putting pictures of the items being made from recycled waste on the side of trucks.
The last source of meaningful work in Bailey’s framework is the organisation itself. If a person’s values align with the values of their organisation, they feel more fulfilled and authentic. The most important thing to know about this is that staff are adept at noticing when values don’t match reality.
“In all of those four areas, there’s opportunities for HR to intervene and help people to see meaning,” says Bailey.
One opportunity is to change job design and performance reviews so that individual roles are explicitly linked to larger, organisational goals. Another is building a comprehensive relational structure so all employees are more richly connected to colleagues, managers, senior leaders and customers.
Meaningfulness is only one part of motivation. As mentioned already, it’s possible to find your work meaningful, but not be engaged by it nor have job satisfaction.
“Meaningfulness drives engagement. It’s not the same as engagement. If you think about the work you do, you would have a certain attitude towards it based on your experiences of the job and how that resonates with who you are as a person. And that sense of ‘Does my work make a contribution?’ That would be very much at the root of meaningfulness,” says Bailey.
“The next step is, ‘Do I feel engaged?’ At that point other things come into play, such as the way you’re being treated by your line manager, your prospects for promotion and if you have too many demands placed upon you.”
Think of the healthcare workers around the world right now who are working for poorly managed hospitals. Every task they do might be significant, but they might also be burnt out and furious at their leaders.
The distinction becomes especially useful when you cynically examine the opposite end of the spectrum. If you were a middle manager with few responsibilities at Australia’s smallest cleaning products importer, for example, how could you possibly find your job meaningful? It’s a role that doesn’t seem to align with any of the sources of meaningfulness.
But humans are adaptive. We are driven to make our job roles congruent with our self-identity. We adjust roles that we otherwise find meaningless so they become more psychologically fulfilling.
“There are many examples of people developing their jobs in particular ways at an unconscious level, specifically in order to enhance the sense of meaningfulness associated with their work,” says Bailey.
This is called ‘job crafting’. It’s where individuals expand or reshape their own role. It happens organically (more often when someone is overqualified for their role, some research suggests), but there is an upside for organisations specifically encouraging it.
At the very least, they should think twice before trying to quash it, says Bailey.
“There’s nothing more demoralising than stopping people from crafting their jobs. Because if you have somebody who’s job crafting, this is someone who’s really thinking about their work, who’s really engaged with it, wants to do a better job and is often coming up with great ideas.”
In her research, Bailey talked to sales assistants who found great meaning in listening to lonely elderly customers. While there might be business benefits to this – the customer may choose to purchase something out of friendliness, or the assistant may discover what the company could be doing to cater more to this type of customer – you can imagine some organisations would see it as a waste of time. But the research suggests that even if it has no direct benefit, having employees care about their jobs will have numerous flow-on effects.
The middle manager at the cleaning products importer might make it their mission to decrease the company’s carbon footprint. Though not necessarily a part of their job description, it’s benefits for the
Of course, job crafting can get to the point where people just aren’t doing their job anymore. Which is all the more reason for employers to encourage it, so they can collaborate with and guide staff.
Another way to get people to find their work meaningful is to convince them to share your values. If you were a cleaning products importer, you might emphasise how important it is that people can cheaply access such goods.
This has links with how meaningfulness gets discussed and used in mainstream business management. From utopian mission statements, such as Facebook’s ‘connect the world’, through to more prosaic company values that come up in performance reviews (‘customer first’, ‘creativity’, etc), companies are, with varying levels of explicitness, attempting to project their ideals onto their workers.
Except through the most extreme forms of thought control, you can not force people to believe as you do.
In their research, Bailey and her colleagues say that if these efforts can’t be safely ignored (i.e. if demonstrating you care about the company’s value is tied to job security or career progression), people will engage in ‘existential labour’. Consciously or unconsciously, they will try to make sense of what you want from them, and respond as best they can.
The first response is ‘surface existential acting’, where workers essentially pretend to care. They will use the right buzzwords in performance reviews and show up for your change initiative meetings. But it’s just for show.
Surface acting is more likely when company values are perceived as inauthentic (when they say they’re customer-first but it’s clear customers are being gouged, for example), or when there is a poor relationship between leadership and staff (where the latter feels unsupported or disconnected).
Pretending is unhealthy. Not only will a company that causes surface acting have more workers who are unaligned to its goals and more likely to leave. It will also have workers who experience job dissatisfaction, exhaustion, bleak emotions and an inability to cope.
There is also deep existential acting. This is where employees do the very difficult work of changing what they perceive as meaningful to align with the organisation.
Clearly, this is what companies want. They fail for a reason a first-year philosophy undergrad could explain. Except through the most extreme forms of thought control, you can not force people to believe as you do.
Deep existential acting, Bailey argues, is even more exhausting than consistent superficial acting. If people are compelled with threats against job security or career outcomes to adopt your viewpoint, you will see the same outcomes of superficial acting. Only worse.
So if you want someone to self-identify with a role and find the work meaningful, rather than changing incentive structures or threatening them, it’s better to just talk to them.
“In most of the organisations where I’ve run workshops, the line managers would never think to ask a direct report, ‘Did you find your work meaningful and what can we do to help with that?’ But even just having those conversations can really aid the process,” says Bailey.
Before you ask them, it’s important to take a hard look at your company. Is it living up to its values? Does it give staff a voice and allow them to dissent? Does it give them autonomy? If not, your questions will prompt surface acting.
“Being straight, transparent and honest with employees is absolutely fundamental to a sense of meaningfulness,” says Bailey. “It‘s very much at the heart of creating an organisation that will enable people to start to find that sense of meaning in the work that they do.”
But what about those moments where, for unavoidable reasons, your organisation fails to live up to its values?
For their 2009 paper Discriminating Between ‘Meaningful Work’ and the ‘Management of Meaning’, Marjolein Lips-Wiersma and Lani Morris researched the importance of coming to terms with personal and organisational imperfection. One participant had this example: “We had these wonderful leadership programs in which we were encouraged to live by our principles. However, on the other hand, if there was to be a price increase, no-one asked how this would affect our poorer customers.”
The answer to this problem is, again, to be transparent. “Research participants did not reject the necessity of sound economic decision-making, but they rejected pretending that it was not a management motivation,” the researchers wrote. “Meaningfulness to them came from making both inspiration towards an ideal and reality visible and discussable alongside each other.”
A fundamental restructure
Returning to the four sources of meaning outlined by Bailey and her colleagues, while each can be experienced on its own, it’s the combination of several that’s most powerful. If you’re doing work that connects you with something larger than yourself, in a role that reflects who you are, for an organisation you like, while working with a group you respect, your work will, of course, be meaningful.
But few are that lucky, and life is rarely so neat. Think of the shelf stacker at a supermarket. Even if their sense that other people value their role has increased, has anything else improved?
The tasks they do are repetitive and are only a small part in a journey they don’t have control over. They are unlikely to be near enough to customers to get kudos, and social distancing probably means their relationships with colleagues are hindered. They might be grateful for having work, but do they identify with the role or their employer?
Worse still, the trend for the past few decades has been to depreciate these kinds of jobs. Lower-level service jobs that could not be offshored have become the mainstays of the gig economy and labour hire companies. They not only pay less; they are often bereft of the benefits, rights and privileges of other jobs. Gig workers don’t get sick leave. Casual workers with less than 12 months of tenure were specifically left out of the JobKeeper subsidy.
To top it off, currently these jobs require people to put their health at risk for little personal benefit.
“Going back to a study we did before the pandemic, people who felt that their work placed them at risk often found it very difficult to find meaning in their work,” says Bailey.
But what about the efficacy of trying to talk to them about finding their work more meaningful? As attractive as it might be to some, it is not possible to get people to care about their jobs with words alone.
“Work-life balance, equitable wages and some form of security contribute to the experience of dignified work and… this material reality is not experienced as being distinct from, or even less important than, other forms of values based management,” write Lips-Wiersma and Morris.
As our society is looking at the importance of some jobs with fresh eyes, it should also be taking a hard look at why it has made them so difficult to be experienced as meaningful by the people actually doing them.
“This is going to involve a fundamental reappraisal of the way we structure employment,” says Bailey. “But at the end of the day, for as long as we’ve got these jobs that are highly insecure, it’s very difficult for people in them to find a sense of meaningfulness.”
It would be malpractice to write an article about the search for meaning and not mention the pursuit of happiness. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say there are two kinds. The first is what we feel at a party, or when we look out over a beautiful landscape. The second resonates far more deeply in our hearts, so much so that ‘happiness’ doesn’t really capture it. It’s what we feel after we accomplish something we will be proud of for the rest of our lives. This is what meaningful work offers.
Our greatest successes are won through our greatest struggles. There is a reason soldiers are trained to keep their cool in a firefight; doctors are trained to tell families a loved-one has died; and HR professionals are trained to tell a person that their job, which gives them self-esteem and a place in society, is being made redundant.
We don’t work because it makes us happy. We work to make a living. And if we try, and circumstances permit, work makes our lives more worthwhile.
This is an edited version of an article that was published in the June 2020 edition of HRM magazine.