Could ‘meaningful work’ cause staff burnout?

Most employees want the opportunity to make a difference but one study shows it may come with a price

Could ‘meaningful work’ cause staff burnout?

Business Strategy


Despite past research claiming that ‘meaningful work’ is motivating, a new study by the University of Sussex said it can cause staff to burnout instead.

“Meaningful work has been defined as work that is personally enriching and makes a positive contribution,” said lead author and professor, Catherine Bailey. “There is increasing interest in how organizations can harness the meaningfulness of work to enhance productivity and performance” .

Bailey explained that many organizations enhance employees’ experience at work through job redesign, leadership, HRM and culture.

“[However], 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 said, calling the phenomenon ‘existential labour’.

“Faking it in this way, pretending that they believe things that they do not, for instance, takes a huge amount of emotional resource and can leave people exhausted, burnt out or wanting to quit,” she added.

Bailey said there are two ways employees ‘act out’ when they believe they’re not doing authentic, meaningful work:

  1. Surface existential acting – when they keep in line with the expectations at work, despite having a different set of values and beliefs
  2. Deep existential acting – when they alter their personal values and beliefs to align themselves more closely with the organization’s

However, both behaviours could cause problems for the employee and company, said Bailey.

“HR professionals should consider the factors that are likely to give rise to forms of organizational acting, such as reward systems that emphasise 'fitting in', and structures and systems that allow little room for individual choice, voice and discretion, and explore the extent to which these are true of their organizations,” she said.

"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”.

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