A Review of the Empirical Literature on Meaningful Work

[We’re pleased to welcome authors Catherine Bailey of King’s College London, Ruth Yeoman of the University of Oxford, Adrian Madden of the University of Greenwich, Marc Thompson of the University of Oxford, and Gary Kerridge of the University of Warwick. They recently published an article in the Human Resource and Development Review entitled “A Review of the Empirical Literature on Meaningful Work: Progress and Research Agenda,” which is currently free to read for a limited time. Below they reflect on the inspiration for conducting this research:]

hrda_16_4.coverWhat motivated you to pursue this research?

In recent years we have witnessed a growing interest in meaningfulness. As we started to research in the area of meaningful work, we became aware that the literature is quite disparate, with studies published in a wide range of different fields such as sociology, psychology, political theory, ethics, philosophy and theology, but no efforts to bring this all together. In particular, we noticed that there have been a lot of conceptual or theoretical contributions but relatively few empirical studies, so it was difficult to distinguish between opinion and evidence.

We saw a need for a study that reviewed all of the high-quality empirical studies relating to meaningful work and that created a structure around it to enable researchers and practitioners to gain a sense of the extent and quality of the evidence base alongside any gaps in knowledge.

What has been the most challenging aspect of conducting your research?

A challenge with any evidence review is ensuring that you cast a wide enough net to capture all the relevant studies. This necessitates developing a broad research strategy covering a huge range of literature. The next problem is then sifting through all the many thousands of publications to distil these down until you only include studies that meet a stringent quality threshold.

Were there any surprising findings?

We were surprised that there weren’t more high-quality empirical studies, given the level of interest in the topic, but this creates an opportunity for researchers as many unanswered questions remain.

In what ways is your research innovative, and how do you think it will impact the field?

Ours is the first comprehensive systematic review of the empirical literature on meaningful work that evaluates the evidence relating to the theories, definitions, antecedents and outcomes of meaningfulness. As such, we hope that it will become a useful point of reference for researchers in the field and help them identify fruitful areas for their own study.

What advice would you give to new scholars and incoming researchers in this particular field of study?

Meaningful work is a highly topical area at the moment with many new publications coming out all the time in a wide range of journals. For example, there is a special issue on the topic that we have edited that is shortly due to be published in the Journal of Management Studies, and we have also edited an Oxford Handbook of Meaningful Work due to be published in 2019. I would urge new scholars in the field to make sure they keep up to date with the new literature and connect with scholars who have similar interests, for example in the International Symposium series on meaningful work that we run which holds biannual events; previous meetings have taken place in Oxford, Auckland and Amsterdam, and the next one will take place in Chicago in 2020.

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Academic Gerrymandering; the Redistricting of Academic Work for Managerial Benefit

[We’re pleased to welcome author, Dr. Kathy Lund Dean of Gustavus Adolphus College. She recently published an article in the Journal of Management Inquiry entitled “Academic Gerrymandering? Expansion and Expressions of Academic Work” which is currently free to read for a limited time. Below, Dr. Dean reflects on this article:]


I am thrilled that “Academic gerrymandering? Expansion and expressions of academic work” will be published and hope it spurs conversations within the vision of the Generative Curiosity section. The article explores how traditional professors’ jobs are blurring the bright lines between faculty and administrative work. The main concept and title of the article mirror my dismay over the U.S. Supreme Court-level conflicts about electoral district gerrymandering, or how political parties remake electoral district boundaries for their own gains, circumventing fair election processes and citizen voice in favor of getting their candidate into office.

“Blended’ academic roles, or, new faculty roles that combine traditional faculty work with administrative responsibilities, are increasingly common. While some faculty are jobcrafting their work into blended roles—re-defining work responsibilities and creating customized jobs that speak to strengths, interests, passions, and desires to learn new things—others are living out blended roles that are demotivating and draining. In my article, I model how blended academic roles might be experienced—a range from liberating and energizing to exploitative and dispiriting. Where these new work roles fall in the model depends on two factors: faculty agency, or, whether faculty retain real power in selecting work parameters, and institutional instrumentality, or, whether institutions direct faculty energy toward their own agendas and goals. “Academic gerrymandering” is my biggest worry for this new form of work; gerrymandering occurs when institutions actively “redistrict” faculty roles, moving administrative responsibilities that it needs accomplished into a faculty role without commensurately removing other responsibilities, and/or circumventing that faculty member’s needs or input.

The good news is that blended faculty work can be inspiring, challenging, and directed toward learning new skills and testing out new abilities. I call that “positional dexterity,” when faculty have lots of control over their work parameters and the institution helps that faculty member be successful. My inspiration for writing the article came from living out my own blended faculty role, complete with its agency struggles, ambiguous boundaries, political challenges, as well as its opportunity, creativity and energy. I was also inspired to explore these new roles by observing colleagues in blended roles whose experiences have not been positive, and whose institutions have been, in my opinion, quite opportunistic in how administrative work is being parsed out and completed.

I recommend that faculty be alert to how their jobs are changing, and how jobcrafted work can result in synergy between faculty and administrative responsibilities when voice and agency are retained. Taking ownership over job boundaries can mean the difference between gerrymandered work roles and joyful, innovative ones. In my experience, there are many other responses to administrative ‘demands’ than simply saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and faculty may be in a unique position to partner with administration and find roles that fuse both institutional needs with faculty interests. What’s clear, however, is that the need to consider job ‘districting’ in new ways is getting much more important than ever before.

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Announcing the Winner of the 2013 Best Article Award from the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science!

trophy-189659-mWe’re pleased to congratulate Brenda E. Ghitulescu, winner of the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science‘s 2013 Best Article Award! Dr. Ghitulescu’s award-winning paper appeared in the June 2013 issue of the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science and is entitled “Making Change Happen: The Impact of Work Context on Adaptive and Proactive Behaviors.” In honor of this award, the article is free to read for the next 30 days!

The abstract:

The success of organizational change increasingly depends on employees taking personal responsibility for change through effective adaptation to changing conditions and proactive anticipation of new challenges. In this study, we examined JABS_v50_72ppiRGB_powerpointhow work context features influence the change-oriented behaviors of adaptivity and proactivity in the workplace. We proposed several direct and moderating effects of job context variables on adaptive and proactive behaviors. We used a multilevel design and a unique data set with 621 special education teachers embedded in 157 urban public schools to test our hypotheses. Our analyses show that adaptive and proactive behaviors are distinct aspects of job performance during organizational change and that different job features have distinct direct and moderating effects on these behaviors. Our results provide insights into how leaders of change efforts can create a work context that encourages employees to actively participate in the change process.

You can click here to read “Making Change Happen: The Impact of Work Context on Adaptive and Proactive Behaviors.” Want to know about all the latest news and research from the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science? Click here to sign up for e-alerts and get notifications sent directly to your inbox!