Labour Studies Index

Updated: 2022-05-16

The mismanaged soul: Existential labor and the erosion of meaningful work

Document type Article
Author Alfes, Kerstin
Author Bailey, Catherine
Author Madden, Adrian
Author Shantz, Amanda
Author Soane, Emma
Journal Human Resource Management Review
Volume 27
Date 2017 09
ISSN 1053-4822
Pages 416-430


Meaningful work has been defined as work that is personally enriching and that makes a positive contribution. There is increasing interest in how organizations can harness the meaningfulness of work to enhance productivity and performance. We explain how organizations seek to manage the meaningfulness employees experience through strategies focused on job design, leadership, HRM and culture. Employees can respond positively to employers' strategies aimed at raising their level of experienced meaningfulness when they are felt to be authentic. However, when meaningfulness is lacking, or employees perceive that the employer is seeking to manipulate their meaningfulness for performative intent, then the response of employees can be to engage in “existential labor” strategies with the potential for harmful consequences for individuals and organizations. We develop a Model of Existential Labor, drawing out a set of propositions for future research endeavors, and outline the implications for HRM practitioners.