Avoiding Staff Burnout through “Meaningful Work”



Contrary to previous studies, a new study has found that the strategy to boost staff performance and morale by manipulating desire for meaningful work often achieve the opposite.

According to a new paper in the journal Human Resource Management Review, the previous thought that important and meaningful work is the single most-valued feature of employment for most of us, brings a range of benefits for individuals and employers. Managers have recognized this and employ a range of techniques to harness this natural motivation, such as encouraging us to adopt organizational values, supporting good causes, and linking work to a wider purpose. But when employees view these strategies as self-serving, they then fall flat and can actually have negative consequences.

Professor Catherine Bailey in the School of Business, Management and Economics at the University of Sussex, says that the mismanagement of meaningfulness in the workplace is giving rise to what she describes as “existential labor.”

Professor Bailey and colleagues at Greenwich, Berlin and LSE identify two forms of 'acting' that employees use when they perceive organizational efforts to manage the meaningfulness of their work.

Surface existential acting is when an employee acts in line with expectations at work even if their true values and beliefs are different.

Deep existential acting occurs when an employee attempts to alter their own sense of what is meaningful in order to more closely align with their employer. The paper gives the example of a call center worker who finds meaning in helping vulnerable or worried customers, yet is expected to handle as many calls as possible in a day. That person sets out to deliberately change their perception of the situation so that they instead find meaning in helping the maximum number of people in a day, even if that means sacrificing time spent on each one.