These days a trend can spread like wildfire. Innovations like nap pods and hot desks are touted as the future of work and workplace initiatives such as flexibility and meaningful work promise to solve all your pressing problems, from engagement and productivity – to attracting millennials.
Copious research shows that important and meaningful work is the single most-valued feature of employment for most of us. As a result, attempts by organisations and managers to harness this natural motivation has increased, from encouraging us to adopt organisational values and linking work to a wider purpose, to supporting good causes.
But research recently published by the University of Suffolk suggests that strategies to boost staff performance and morale by manipulating our desire for meaningful work often achieve the opposite. In fact, such practices can damage organisations and alienate employees.
Supporting this is another paper in the journal Human Resource Management Review, that found if employees come to see meaningful work strategies as self-serving rather than genuine they fall flat and can actually have negative consequences.
The lead author of the study, Professor Catherine Bailey from the School of Business, Management and Economics at the University of Sussex, says that the mismanagement of meaningfulness in the workplace has resulted in the rise of ‘existential labour’.
“Management strategies like this, when executed badly, leave huge numbers of workers who feel compelled to act as if they find their work meaningful, even if they do not,” she says.
“Faking it in this way, pretending that they believe things that they don’t, takes a huge amount of emotional resource and can leave people exhausted, burnt out or wanting to quit.”
This manifests in two forms of ‘acting’ that employees use when they detect organisational efforts to manage the meaningfulness of their work.
Surface existential acting
Surface existential acting describes when an employee acts in line with expectations at work even if their true values and beliefs are different.
One way to solve this problem is to take active steps to realign an employee’s perception with the goals of an organisation. For example, a survey of nurses working across three National Health Service trusts in England shows that those who who perceive their organisation to be more dynamic and entrepreneurial are in turn more satisfied at work.
The study, which explored the relationship between nurses’ experiences of burnout and their perceptions of organisational culture and support, found that rather than instigate large-scale, “disruptive” organisational change, small changes that “foster mutual support at ward level and facilitate collaboration” were effective, as they assisted in nurses perceiving that their organisations were “continually evolving”.
Deep existential acting
An example of deep existential acting – when an employee attempts to alter their own sense of what is meaningful in order to more closely align with their employer – is illustrated by a call centre case study.
One call centre worker, who found meaning in helping vulnerable or worried customers, didn’t have this sense validated and was instead expected to strive to handle as many calls as possible a day. Desiring to please their manager, they struggled to make quantity more meaningful to them than quality.
A potentially vicious cycle
In a recent survey published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, researchers found that doctors who feel burned out or overwhelmed by the demands of work are less likely to view their work with patients as a “calling” that has meaning.
This turns burnout and meaning into a worrying feedback loop. Not only do both un-meaningful work and pretending work is meaningful cause burnout, but burnout can also cause work to feel less meaningful.
Burnout among doctors is of particular concern as it’s been linked to lower patient satisfaction, more medical errors and higher healthcare costs.
Dr John Yoon, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, who has also conducted research on burnout, suggests that doctors who work in environments that they feel are driven by profit are more likely to feel burned out, a feeling he describes as “an experience of dislocation between what people are doing versus what they aspired to do.”
Doctors with burnout symptoms had much lower odds of calling their work rewarding and agreeing that it was making the world a better place.
The lesson for HR
Managers and HR professionals should take note, says Bailey.
Not only should they consider the factors likely to give rise to forms of organisational acting, such as reward systems that emphasise ‘fitting in’ and structures and systems that allow little room for individual choice, voice and discretion, they should also take serious stock of the extent to which any of the above currently apply to their organisation.
“Ensuring that line managers are appropriately trained and developed to help employees find their work genuinely meaningful should be the corner piece of a meaningfulness management strategy.”