Lauren E. Kuykendall, PhD, Department of Psychology, George Mason University

The purpose of this research is to examine the effects of employee perceptions of their organizations’ management meaning (i.e., attempts to influence or control the meaningfulness employees ascribe to their work) on the employment relationship, burnout, and the work/nonwork interface. We hypothesize that management of meaning will positively predict both feelings of exploitation (H1a) and experienced meaningfulness in work (H1b). Exploitation feelings will predict turnover intentions (H2a) and burnout (H2b), but experienced meaningfulness will weaken the former relationship (H3a) and strengthen the latter (H3b), as well as predict greater work/nonwork interference perceptions (H4). Cynicism towards one’s organization will weaken the relationship between management of meaning and experienced meaningfulness (H5). Finally, we expect these hypothesized relationships to be stronger when examining service-oriented meaning and management thereof, as opposed to task- or relationship-oriented meaning (H6). All hypothesized relationships are displayed in Figure 1.

Meaningful work’s benefits are well-documented (Allan et al., 2019). Much scholarship on the topic concludes with recommendations that organizations facilitate meaningful work for their employees (e.g., Michaelson et al., 2014; Pratt et al., 2013). Yet, qualitative research and popular writing have shown that employees resent employer efforts to manage meaning (Brogan, 2020; Hennekam et al., 2020; Lips-Wiersma & Morris, 2009). Moreover, meaningful work can also lead to overwork and burnout (Bunderson & Thompson, 2009; Kim et al., 2020) and can harm interpersonal relationships in and out of the workplace (Cardador & Caza, 2012; Florian et al., 2019). Thus, some argue that meaningfulness in work is more exploitative than beneficial (e.g., Jaffe, 2021), but relatively little empirical and no quantitative research has examined management of meaning’s influence on the employee-organization relationship. Bailey and coworkers (2017) theorized that management of meaning creates burnout and turnover intentions in employees who feel they must inauthentically or involuntarily display internalized meaningfulness to match perceived employer expectations. However, employees who do find their work meaningful in ways that employers desire seem to be more tolerant of exploitative practices, especially when the meaning is service-oriented in nature (Bunderson & Thompson, 2009; Kim et al., 2020). Cynicism towards one’s organization, while often seen as undesirable, may serve as a buffer against the harmful psychological effects of employment relationship strife (e.g., Brandes & Das, 2006).

Data collection is currently underway and will be complete by the end of July 2021. All participants will have been employed in the same job in the United States for at least the past month. All participants (expected n ≈ 250) will be recruited via either 1) a large, diverse, public university’s undergraduate research participant pool, or 2) the survey respondent recruitment website Prolific. We expect diversity along the lines of age, race, gender, occupation, and socioeconomic status. All variables will be measured using self-report scales. The management of meaning and experienced meaningfulness measures will be based on Pratt and coworkers’ (2013) three calling orientations of work: craftsmanship (task), kinship (relationship), and service. Single items will ask respondents to rate the extent to which they feel their employers emphasize each of the following types of opportunities in their communications to employees: a) developing task expertise, b) forming meaningful relationships, and c) serving others. Experienced meaningfulness will be measured by the extent to which respondents feel their job truly provides these opportunities. Likert scale measures of exploitation feelings (Livne-Ofer et al., 2019), burnout (Demerouti et al., 2010), work-nonwork interference (Fisher et al., 2009), turnover intentions (Emberland & Rundmo, 2010), and organizational cynicism (Kanter & Mirvis, 1989; Naus et al., 2007) will also be administered along with demographic measures. Hypotheses will be tested in R using structural equation modeling.

Data are still being collected at this time. Data collection will be complete by the end of July 2021, and data will be cleaned and analyzed during the month of August.

Ultimately, we expect the present research to show that organizations’ management of meaning can incentivize employees to tolerate unhealthy and perhaps even exploitative working conditions, as well as identify potential causal paths for future research to explore further.

While management of meaning is not a newly devised phenomenon (cf. Aktouf, 1992), greater scrutiny of its effects is clearly needed. For example, though not a direct focus of our research, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted discrepancies between rhetoric about the importance of certain occupations to societal functioning and the treatment holders of these occupations receive from their employers (e.g., Manjoo, 2020). In improving understanding of management of meaning’s effects on the employment relationship and employee wellbeing, we hope to encourage organizations to scrutinize the way they talk to their employees about their work and to help employees to more effectively advocate for themselves.

Tags: Applicable to all occupations/industries, Applied research, Empirical study, Fit; Balance; Conflict; Spillover; and Enrichment, Organization- and Job-Level Environments and Practices, Work - Life - Family, Workplace Stress; Outcomes; and Recovery