Research about meaningful work

Categories: Focus Series, Other, Research Roles, Research Skills

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In June and July MethodSpace will focus on research-oriented careers including career purpose and goals, skills, as well as expected and unexpected transitions.


You have choices when you are standing at a crossroads. Try to move forward on the path you were on before disruption occurred, or try something new? Keep working in your “day job” while developing your side hustle or wild ideas into paid work? Do research and write independently to develop your credentials so you can land an academic or research-oriented position?

Your own personal decision-making about the purpose that underlies your work is inherent in career decision-making. We talk about research impact, but what about career impact? What gives work meaning, for you and for those who you hope to reach?

When I’ve been at career crossroads I’ve drawn inspiration from the Marge Piercy poem, To Be Of Use. She says “The pitcher cries for water to carry, and a person for work that is real.”

I’m sharing this collection of articles that I hope will offer food for thought as you consider how to pursue work that is real. Please use the provided links to get open-access.

Bendassolli, P. F., & Tateo, L. (2018). The meaning of work and cultural psychology: Ideas for new directions. Culture & Psychology, 24(2), 135–159. https://doi.org/10.1177/1354067X17729363

Abstract. Work is one arena in which human beings constitute their identities and participate in collective-cultural enterprises. But research on factors affecting the meaning of work and its outcomes focuses mostly on individual-level variables related to workers’ experience. However, scholars have recently proposed a shift towards a more collective dimension of meaningfulness, in particular, the cultural level. This article discusses and expands on this recent trend, demonstrating how growing attention to cultural factors of work’s meaning raises some problematic, crucial issues about the very definition of culture and its role in meaning-making. A particular issue is the assumption that culture is transmitted to people, that it is primarily a collective endeavour based on shared values and that culture can endow work with meaning. Based on a cultural psychology perspective, we revisit both the relationship between person and culture and the idea of work as a cultural phenomenon. We argue that work is inherently a meaningful activity, mediating between personal and collective culture. We end by proposing some potential new directions to explore.

Allan, B. A., Owens, R. L., Sterling, H. M., England, J. W., & Duffy, R. D. (2019). Conceptualizing Well-Being in Vocational Psychology: A Model of Fulfilling WorkThe Counseling Psychologist47(2), 266–290.  https://doi.org/10.1177/0011000019861527

Abstract. Following from the strengths-based inclusive theory of work (S-BIT of Work), fulfilling work is a central goal of career and work counseling. However, vocational psychologists have yet to develop a comprehensive model of fulfilling work. We addressed this concern by reviewing the literature on well-being, developing the fulfilling work construct, and delineating an operationalized model of fulfilling work. This operationalization contains four components: (a) job satisfaction, (b) meaningful work, (c) work engagement, and (d) workplace positive emotions. These components capture the hedonic, eudaimonic, cognitive, and affective dimensions of fulfilling work. Researchers can adapt these components to different cultures by adjusting their operationalizations and understanding how people interpret and experience fulfilling work in different contexts. Fulfilling work represents the core experience of well-being in the work context and provides a starting point for research on the S-BIT of Work.

Chalofsky, N., & Krishna, V. (2009). Meaningfulness, Commitment, and Engagement:The Intersection of a Deeper Level of Intrinsic MotivationAdvances in Developing Human Resources11(2), 189–203. https://doi.org/10.1177/1523422309333147

Abstract. The problem and the solution. The work motivation literature suggests the existence of a level of motivation that goes beyond the commonly known typologies of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. The purpose of this article is to explore that deeper level of intrinsic motivation, meaningfulness, and to discuss the connections between meaning of work and meaning at work, represented by the concepts of employee commitment and engagement. This multidimensional approach combines the individual and psychological aspects of work motivation with the contextual and cultural factors that influence employee motivation.

Michaelson, C. (2019). A Normative Meaning of Meaningful Work. Journal of Business Ethics. doi:10.1007/s10551-019-04389-0

Abstract. Research on meaningful work has not embraced a shared definition of what it is, in part because many researchers and laypersons agree that it means different things to different people. However, subjective and social accounts of meaningful work have limited practical value to help people pursue it and to help scholars study it. The account of meaningful work advanced in this paper is inherently normative. It recognizes the relevance of subjective experience and social agreement to appraisals of meaningfulness but considers them conceptually incomplete and practically limited. According to this normative account, meaningful work should be meaningful to oneself and to others and is also meaningful independent of them. It sets forth grounds for evaluating some work to be more meaningful than other work, asserting the possibility that one could be mistaken about the meaningfulness of one’s work. While it thus proscribes some claims to meaningful work, it also opens up potential new avenues of inquiry into, among other things, self-aggrandizing and harmful work that is experienced as meaningful, morally valuable work that is not experienced as meaningful, and the distinction between experienced and normative meaningfulness.

Mitra, R., & Buzzanell, P. M. (2017). Communicative tensions of meaningful work: The case of sustainability practitioners. Human Relations, 70(5), 594–616. https://doi.org/10.1177/0018726716663288

Abstract. This study, based on in-depth interviews with 45 practitioners in the emerging field of environmental sustainability, argues for a more nuanced approach to studying the meaningfulness of work. Drawing from the tension-centered approach, we posit that sustainability practitioners derived meaningfulness in tensional ways from circumstances and factors that were both enabling and constraining, stemming from various organizational, professional and political structures. This occurs through ongoing negotiation that spans everyday work processes, the perceived impact of such work, and participants’ career positioning. In addition to examining meaningfulness as a dynamic and contested negotiation, rather than a purely positive outcome, the political implications of such meaning-making are traced. We close by discussing some implications for future research on meaningfulness of work.

Munn, S. L. (2013). Unveiling the Work–Life System: The Influence of Work–Life Balance on Meaningful Work. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 15(4), 401–417. https://doi.org/10.1177/1523422313498567

Abstract. Individuals, organizations, and government are the primary forces studied in a work–life scenario. Too often these forces are studied independently of one another when they should instead be examined as a system. The most frequently discussed piece of the work–life system is work–life balance. Understanding how concepts of work–life balance are intertwined with meaningful work is important to individual and organizational development in human resource development (HRD).

Onça, S., & Bido, D. (2019). Antecedents and consequences of meaningful work RAM. Revista de Administração Mackenzie, 20. doi:10.1590/1678-6971/eramg190096

Abstract. This study assesses the influence of the importance of work and of creative self-concept on meaningful work and the influence of meaningful work on the employability of unemployed people living in the Southeast region of the State of Pará, in Brazil, aiming at a new job. Originality/value: This study also contributes to the literature, offering three new valid and reliable measuring instruments for the following constructs: Creative self-concept, Importance of work and Meaningful work.

Sawhney, G., Britt, T. W., & Wilson, C. (2020). Perceiving a Calling as a Predictor of Future Work Attitudes: The Moderating Role of Meaningful Work. Journal of Career Assessment, 28(2), 187–201. https://doi.org/10.1177/1069072719848981

Abstract. The goal of the current study was to examine the interactive effect of perceiving a calling and meaningful work on employee attitudes. Specifically, we explored the multiplicative effect of perceiving a calling and meaningful work on work engagement, affective, and normative occupational commitment using a prospective design. Results indicated that meaningful work moderated the relation between perceiving a calling and affective occupational commitment. Specifically, the effects of perceiving a calling on affective occupational commitment were stronger for those who perceived less, but not more, meaning in their work. The interactive effect of perceiving a calling and meaningful work did not predict work engagement or normative occupational commitment. Implications and future research directions are discussed.

Steger, M. F., Dik, B. J., & Duffy, R. D. (2012). Measuring Meaningful Work: The Work and Meaning Inventory (WAMI). Journal of Career Assessment, 20(3), 322–337. https://doi.org/10.1177/1069072711436160

Abstract. Many people desire work that is meaningful. However, research in this area has attracted diverse ideas about meaningful work (MW), accompanied by an equally disparate collection of ways of assessing MW. To further advance study in this area, the authors propose a multidimensional model of work as a subjectively meaningful experience consisting of experiencing positive meaning in work, sensing that work is a key avenue for making meaning, and perceiving one’s work to benefit some greater good. The development of a scale to measure these dimensions is described, an initial appraisal of the reliability and construct validity of the instrument’s scores is reported using a sample of university employees (N = 370) representing diverse occupations. MW scores correlated in predicted ways with work-related and general well-being indices, and accounted for unique variance beyond common predictors of job satisfaction, days reported absent from work, and life satisfaction. The authors discuss ways in which this conceptual model provides advantages to scholars, counselors, and organizations interested in fostering MW.

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