Most will know the story of the janitor at NASA. When asked by a visiting John F. Kennedy what he did, he didn’t mumble something about sweeping the floor but answered, proud and clear, ‘I’m helping put a man on the moon.’ It’s a nice story, illustrating that even apparently menial jobs can be full of meaning if we can find it.

But is it too romantic a picture? Certainly there is a strong tradition of scepticism that argues that management and the employment relationship can strip work of its soul. Richard Sennett, a sociologist, argued in The Craftsman that the modern economy gives us less chance to develop mastery over a period of years; instead we get rushed from task to task, job to job, as technology determines the pace at which we work and the skills we use.

Impoverished and purposeless jobs: the route to alienation

Sennett laments a loss of expertise, but the anthropologist David Graeber possibly goes even further in describing jobs that are pointless in their very essence. In his recent critique, Bullsh*t Jobs, he develops a typology of non-jobs, such as the manager overseeing people who don’t need overseeing, or the people whose only responsibility is to fix glitches in systems that should be repaired. The sort of work that the workers themselves believe serves no useful purpose for society, the economy or even for their own organisations.

In fact, the basic critique is far from new. The notion of worker ‘alienation’, describing the process by which people feel disconnected from the fruit of their work, goes all the way back to Karl Marx.

A job worth doing, well done

As the basic diagnosis is longstanding, so the root of the problem is deep. Meaning and purpose in work stems from a tangible sense that one has a job worth doing and that one can achieve a job well done. This is important because of fundamental human needs to create, to learn and develop skills, to apply strengths and capabilities, and to progress towards goals that we believe are valuable. The benefit of having this is personal and also organisational. Meaningful work benefits workers in their well-being and benefits the businesses they work for, through increased employee motivation and effort and reduced staff turnover.

How meaningful is work in the UK?

The CIPD’s new survey, UK Working Lives, shows that 3 in 4 UK workers feel they do useful work for their organisation – or in the case of the self-employed, for their clients – but fewer people (about 1 in 2) are convinced about the value they create for society or are motivated by their organisations’ or clients’ core purpose.

Meaningful work graph

The picture is more positive than negative overall, but there are still substantial proportions of people who think their work contributes nothing of value for society (1 in 4) or their organisation (1 in 10).

Is there really a problem?

The view from neoclassical economics is that this shouldn’t be a problem. The argument would be that if it’s important to get a sense of fulfilment from one’s work, people will take this into account in their rational choices about what jobs they take and the labour market will adapt accordingly, for example paying more for boring work.

Unfortunately – despite recruitment adverts inspiring us to ‘Love Mondays’ – this often doesn’t happen. For several decades, behavioural science has consistently shown that our decision making is less rational than we’d probably like to think – especially when wads of cash are on the table. Once in a meaningless job, many may struggle to find better alternatives.

What’s more, far from the labour market compensating people for boring work, lower skilled work tends to be less meaningful. As shown in UK Working Lives, the sense of meaningfulness is consistently weaker among those in lower occupational groups. Workers in unskilled manual work or casual labour (groups D and E) consistently find less meaning in their jobs than those in skilled manual work (C2) and administrative and professional work, be it at a junior (C1), intermediate (B) or senior (A) level.

Meaningful work by occupation graph

So what can be done about a lack of meaning and alienation at work?

For one thing, we need to acknowledge the problem. Assuming it’s true and his response was genuine, the story of the NASA janitor is great in itself, but should be used carefully. It patently doesn’t justify hoodwinking people into accepting unfulfilling work. The simple fact is that less skilled work with less responsibility is less likely to be meaningful, so employers would do well to help all workers upskill within their roles and, if possible, look for opportunities to develop in other roles.

How much of a role for managers?

What about the role managers can play? The NASA janitor story suggests that motivation comes from employees seeing the ‘line of sight’ between their roles and the organisation’s purpose and objectives. From this, another conclusion that’s tempting to make is that it’s a leader’s role to bring that line of sight to life. What’s needed is a compelling articulation of strategy and charismatic leadership; in other words, a style of leadership that puts the leader centre stage.

The problem with this line is that when people find work meaningful, it tends to be something they discover for themselves. Meaninglessness at work, on the other hand, is often a result of how employees are treated. To some extent this means that managers would do well to make sure they don’t get in the way of the sense of meaningfulness their people derive from their work.

But that’s not all managers can do. They have a key role to play in giving people recognition and a tangible sense of having contributed to the organisation. ‘Thank you’ and ‘well done’ can go a long way. They are also central to fostering a wider culture that is supportive, respectful and appreciative. We may find the meaningfulness that we seek ourselves, but being appreciated legitimises this and can reinforce it.

It makes a real difference whether you feel you’re ‘helping put a man on the moon’ or essentially gold plating a rusty pipe. The best response managers can make to this tension is:

  1. Authentically recognise that it exists.
  2. Not assume that they will be the source of meaningfulness for their employees – and certainly not try and con people about the nature of their work.
  3. Where possible, validate the meaning that employees seek in their work and help enrich their jobs.

By Jonny Gifford, Senior Advisor (Organisational Behaviour) at the CIPD and Visiting Fellow at Westminster Business School, and Katie Bailey, Professor of Work and Employment at King's Business School, University of London

More thought leadership

Thought leadership
Creating a neuroinclusive organisation for the future of work

The CIPD’s Dr Jill Miller and Uptimize’s Ed Thompson explain why workplace EDI must include neuroinclusion - and a dedication to equality of outcomes for all types of thinkers - if organisations are to fulfil their people commitments, attract and retain great talent, and unlock innovation through true diversity of thought

A woman working from home with her back to camera
Thought leadership
How do people professionals support their own wellbeing?

Rebecca Peters offers advice on looking after your own physical and mental health which will help you support the workforce

Thought leadership
Building momentum for menstrual health support

In November, the CIPD published a new report and guide on women’s health at work. Authors Rachel Suff and Claire McCartney provide a summary of the key learning points

Thought leadership
Responsible business: Leading the way

A thought leadership and podcast series exploring how responsible business and leadership have changed since the pandemic