In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Meaningful Work

  • Introduction
  • Theoretical Foundations
  • Defining Meaningful Work
  • Overview Articles
  • Measures
  • Fostering Meaningful Work in Organizations
  • The Dark Side of Meaningful Work
  • Journals
  • Books

Management Meaningful Work
Marjolein Lips-Wiersma, Ilse von Hirschberg
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846740-0129


While the debate about the purpose of work has had a long history, it was not until the 1980s that the literature started to focus on defining meaningful work from the perspective of the employee. Particularly research into worker dissatisfaction resulted in a significant body of literature on just, free, and dignified work that also informed the influential job characteristics model. More recently, research has focused on individual-level variables to explain why some supposedly meaningful jobs are not experienced as such by many, whereas supposedly meaningless jobs such as catering or dirty work provide considerable meaning for some.

Theoretical Foundations

Meaningful work has been the topic of scholarly interest for many centuries. It sits at the interface of the sociology of work, as discussed in Durkheim 1984; organizational behavior, explored in Hackman and Oldham 1980; existentialism, as documented in Frankl 1959; and calling/vocational theory, as explained in Weber 2002.

  • Durkheim, Émile. The Division of Labor in Society. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1984.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-17729-5

    Translated from the 1893 French edition; with an introduction by Lewis Coser. Durkheim’s work was concerned with how societies could maintain their integrity and coherence in the modern era in which traditional ties to church or community could no longer be assumed. In this context he was also concerned with the new social institution of work in the context of individualism. Themes of social cohesion and having a sense of belonging continue to be pursued in the meaningful work literature.

  • Frankl, V. E. Man’s Search for Meaning. New York: Pocket Books, 1959.

    In this influential work, Frankl argues that the human being cannot avoid suffering but he or she can choose how to cope with it, and find meaning in it, and move forward. He theorizes that the primary human drive is the pursuit of meaningfulness. This “will to meaning” is a cornerstone to much of contemporary scholarship on meaningful work.

  • Hackman, J. R., and G. R. Oldham. Work Redesign. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1980.

    The job characteristics model framed meaningful work as a function of skill variety, task identity (completing a whole piece of work from start to finish), and task significance (having a positive impact on others). This model inspired a large body of additional research on work design that has extended beyond these three dimensions. In particular work as having a positive impact on others is a central theme in current meaningful work literature.

  • Weber, M. The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism: And Other Writings. New York: Penguin, 2002.

    Originally published in 1905. A classic treatise, Weber sought to understand how the puritan idea of the calling and asceticism coincided with (some would argue caused) the replacement of work as a spiritual demonstration to work as the instrumental means to serve the firm’s profit motive. Ideas on both sacred and secular calling continue to be pursued in the meaningful work literature. See pp. 129–156.

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