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Meaningful or mournful work?

The concept of meaningful work is generally held in a positive light. But in a special research workshop, convened by Professor Katie Bailey and Dr Natalia Slutskaya, participants addressed the lesser-explored adverse effects associated with the drive to find meaning in work.

Held at the Goodenough College, London, on Wednesday 21 June 2017, the workshop brought together a diverse group of speakers and attendees to investigate (and challenge) the concept of meaningful work across a broad range of disciplines.

Work has often been understood as constituting an important source of meaning in people’s lives: structuring time in regular daily activities, providing opportunities for participation in collective activity, and giving purpose, social status, and feelings of self-worth. Research by Professor Katie Bailey has explored how individuals seek meaningfulness from all forms of work, despite the difficult conditions that might characterise their job. [1]

In contrast, the workshop encouraged a critical approach, from challenging the notion of work as beneficial to health to examining how the search for meaning differs in non-professional fields of work. Other presentations focussed on the worlds of fashion and art and on the empty rhetoric used in professional domains.

Investigating alternative scenarios to the high-skill, high-reward, ‘value-adding’ economy which has been the focus of existing literature on meaningful work, the workshop strove to reveal some of the inherent pressures and power relations associated with meaning-making in the workplace. By highlighting that not all work is equally conducive to meaningfulness, forthcoming research led by Dr Natalia Slutskaya seeks to examine how workers adapt and develop resilience to these tensions.

Feeding back on her experience of workshop, speaker Dr Miya Tokumitsu commented:

"The workshop provided a platform for researchers to offer a range of critical perspectives on meaningful work, particularly those that present counter-narratives to the notion that work is – or should be – a source of meaning for individuals.

"Particularly beneficial was the wide range of scholarly backgrounds and geographical diversity represented. Scholars from fields such as management and organization studies as well as film studies and art history and from universities across Europe and beyond were able to meet, find common ground, and discover new approaches to their research."

The workshop included presentations from:

  • Dr David Frayne (Author and Researcher, University of Cardiff) – “Fitter, Happier, More Productive: Reflections on the equation of work and health”
  • Dr Louise Wallenberg (Associate Professor of Fashion Studies, University of Stockholm) – “Beauty in Abundance: Allure and Exploitation in the Modelling Industry"
  • Dr Miya Tokumitsu (Lecturer of Art History, University of Melbourne) – “Always. Be. Making”
  • Professor Andre Spicer (Professor of Organisational Behaviour, CASS) – “Making Meaninglessness. The Role of Business Bulls**t”
  • Dr Gazi Islam (Professor of Business Administration, Grenoble Ecole de Management) and Natasha Slutskaya (Senior Lecturer in Human Resource Management, University of Sussex) – “Threats to Meaning Making in Dirty Work”

Professor Bailey and Dr Slutskaya are members of the Future of Work research hub, based in the School of Business, Management and Economics at the University of Sussex. The Hub is a focal point for interdisciplinary research on work and employment. It brings together Sussex researchers who draw from different disciplinary areas, including: human resources, employment relations, sociology of work and the professions, organization studies, personnel and labour economics, political economy, law and history.

Further information

View the event programme [PDF]

Read more about the Future of Work hub and its research activities.

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By: Russell Eke
Last updated: Friday, 28 July 2017

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