The tensions of 'meaningful work'

Zoe Sanderson reports from a keynote at the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology Annual Conference.

What makes work meaningful? In her keynote address, Professor Gillian Symon (Royal Holloway, University of London) dived into this deep question, pointing first to its long and distinguished history in the social and political sciences.  

For Marx, the issue revolved around alienation, for Weber it was linked to the necessity of working for the greater good and the Protestant work ethic. In psychology, we have Hackman and Oldham’s (1976) famous ‘job characteristics model’, which includes meaningfulness among the psychological states that can contribute to positive work outcomes such as motivation and performance. A seminal 2010 review produced by Rosso and colleagues suggests that work is meaningful when it resonates with our beliefs or values, bolsters our self-efficacy and self-worth, seems purposeful and significant, provides a sense of belonging, allows us to transcend the self, and echoes wider cultural understandings of meaningfulness. Other recent theorists point to the importance of authenticity in work – the antithesis of what David Graeber calls ‘bullshit jobs’ – or emphasise the moral and ethical aspects of meaningfulness (Yeoman, 2014), exploring how it may involve aiming for a greater good, regardless of whether that contributes to an organisation’s bottom line.  

It might seem, then, that meaningfulness at work is a straightforwardly positive thing. But Symon suggested that ‘meaningful work is messy – it’s dynamic and requires the negotiation of tensions’.  For example, in the case of zookeepers in the USA, meaningfulness seemed to be a double-edged sword (Bunderson & Thompson, 2009): by viewing zookeeping as a calling, these workers experienced a strong sense of the significance of what they did, but they sacrificed pay, personal time, and comfort for the sake of doing work that they considered to be a moral duty, making them vulnerable to exploitation. Moreover, according to Symon, the meaningfulness of work changes over time because ‘it’s something we need to negotiate between us and with ourselves. We have to work at it, work through it, and work to produce it.’  

Given the ubiquity of digital technologies in many modern jobs – laptops, mobile phones, social media, and the like – Symon posed the question of how these might shape our interpretations of work as meaningful. With her co-researchers at the EPSRC-funded Digital Brain Switch project, she gathered video diary entries from research participants that included a group of social entrepreneurs, distilling from this material four tensions of meaningful work in a digital age.  

First, the tension between doing work that most people would regard as highly meaningful (such as social entrepreneurship) and the necessity of doing mundane and unrewarded tech-related work in order to make that possible. Symon commented that her colleague on the DBS project, Dr Rebecca Whiting (Birkbeck, University of London), ‘saw hours of footage of social entrepreneurs maintaining technology – setting up laptops, clearing out emails, charging devices, fixing gadgets when they break down – this is invisible work that she called “digi-housekeeping”’. While familiar to many of us, digi-housekeeping can be more extensive when we have the older technology that accompanies shoestring budgets, such as in many social enterprises. She continues: ‘meaningful work always involves some mundanity, but digital technology generates more of it’.  

Secondly, the high levels of emotional engagement and self-realisation that meaningful work can provide is delicately balanced against the tendency for this to tip into overload. Many workers know that digital technologies can facilitate the blurring of boundaries between work and non-work life, making it hard to resist the pull of emails in the evenings and at weekends, for example, and this may be intensified by experiencing work as very meaningful. 

Thirdly, the drive to form meaningful connections to others through social media sits uneasily with the perceived exploitation of those connections by the companies that run the major platforms. This may be especially problematic for Symon’s social entrepreneurs, whose business models seek to offer an alternative to the dominance of large corporations, but who also need to generate profile and networks by using those platforms to make their enterprises succeed.  

Lastly, participants in the DBS project described a tension between the desire to authentically reflect their ‘true self’ online and the perils of exposure to public scrutiny in a sometimes hostile online world. Awareness of these tensions may help us to wisely navigate and potentially extend meaningfulness in work, as psychologists or simply in our own working lives.  


Read more about Professor Symon’s research.

Zoe Sanderson is a doctoral researcher at the University of Bristol, and one of The Psychologist's 'Voices In Psychology'.


Bunderson, J. S., & Thompson, J. A. (2009). The Call of the Wild: Zookeepers, Callings, and the Double-edged Sword of Deeply Meaningful Work: Administrative Science Quarterly.

Graeber, D. (2018).  Bullishit Jobs: A Theory.  UK: Allen Lane (Penguin Books)

Hackman, J. R., & Oldham, G. R. (1976). Motivation through the design of work: Test of a theory. Organizational Behavior & Human Performance16, 250–279.

Rosso, B. D., Dekas, K. H., & Wrzesniewski, A. (2010). On the meaning of work: A theoretical integration and review. Research in Organizational Behavior30, 91–127.

Yeoman, R. (2014).  Meaningful work and workplace democracy.  Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

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