Research

What kind of world do we want to return to?

The COVID-19 pandemic is encouraging us to ask what work is meaningful now and in our futures. Our work must adapt accordingly.

Many of us are work remotely from home in order to self-isolate. This is challenging because the boundaries between work and non-work life become much harder to sustain. In this new condition, we have also become increasingly aware of the hidden and unpaid work that is required to sustain our at-work lives (cooking, cleaning, childcare, eldercare and so on). We also recognise that many of our everyday essentials: social care, food production, cleaning, waste disposal, supermarkets and much of our logistics network are staffed by people on low pay with insecure contracts. These jobs, often considered meaningless by others or written off as low-skill and low-value added, are now understood as critical to the continued functioning of the economy.

As a result, our comparative social evaluation of different types of work is now being challenged. We are also likely to be questioning ourselves and the social utility and meaning of our own work. What is the social utility of financialisation, many may be asking.  Slowly, we are recognising that the value of work is socially constructed and this is something that is not fixed by some hidden hand such as the market but is also something that we all have a hand in creating and sustaining. It is part of an implicit social contract that holds our societies together and gives them legitimacy. We are also realising that the conditions in which people work are also dependent on policies and practices that we have supported either implicitly or explicitly at either state or organisational level.

Take for instance, healthcare. Years of austerity have ensured that the NHS is no longer as resilient as it once was due to under-investment in staffing, equipment and organisational capabilities.  Entering the pandemic, the NHS had over 120,000 vacancies with around 42,000 accounted for by nurses and nearly 1 in 10 doctors posts vacant and budgets were cut from an average of 3.7% growth per year before the financial crisis to 1.4% afterwards. At the same time, many Trusts budgets are in or near deficit. As one commentator noted in 2019 ‘overworked, tired and stressed staff cannot sustainably provide the care they would like to give. Resilience is weak, burnout is strong’  

German medical profession

The NHS had over 120,000 vacancies with around 42,000 accounted for by nurses in early 2020.

Thus, we have seen that other healthcare systems such as Germany’s are in a much better position to deal with pandemics. Indeed, while Germany has also followed an austerity agenda (its road and bridges infrastructure is in a dire state), it committed to much higher levels of investment in healthcare (11.2% of GDP compared to 9.6%) These are societal decisions about what activities and work are meaningful. How can these issues be addressed?

Our research makes an important distinction between subjective and objective conditions of meaningful work and how they can be mutually constitutive. We probably all have examples of people in the same profession or work activity differing in the meaning they attach to their work. The experience of meaningful work can be seen as an individual subjective phenomenon but this perspective individualises work and one implication is that it is left to the individual to create and sustain meaning regardless of the context. It is perhaps no surprise that we see a proliferation of self-help books, consultancy and coaching activities focusing on how to improve ‘engagement’ or find meaning at work.

However, the other side of the equation concerns the objective conditions of work. This opens up critical questions about the quality of jobs, how they connect with people’s needs, their opportunities to flourish as citizens and human beings over their working lives and ultimately the purpose of their work. In our recent OUP Handbook on Meaningful Work (Yeoman et al, 2019), Joanna Ciulla makes an important distinction between what she calls the ‘moral conditions’ of work and meaningful work. By moral conditions, she is referring to fair treatment, sick pay, good quality jobs, a living wage, autonomy and the opportunity for voice in how work is organised amongst other attributes. These conditions, she argues, are core to the social contract between society and the citizen.

Meaningful work, on the other hand is linked to purpose and, in particular, the wider social utility of the work that we do. In essence, this is about what we as a society value. The pandemic has shone a bright light on many organisations that are failing in these areas (Sports Direct, Wetherspoons, and more recently Disney) but also others that are supporting their employees (Marks and Spencer, ASDA and the Post Office, for example).

What, then, are the implications for organisations and for leadership? One implication of the pandemic is that we are clearly not ‘all in this together’. Some sections of society have borne the costs of austerity much more heavily than others and where there has been economic growth since, the rewards have gone disproportionately to the few. Our faith in the logic of the market to address successfully the social and economic needs of a diverse population has been found wanting. We are now more aware of the huge gaps in our institutional support systems that can generate a much more inclusive society, so that we all have a stake, a voice and the opportunity to have meaningful work.  

There is lots of work to do in order to build a more inclusive labour market as well as a social security system which does not see UK sick pay as amongst the worst in Europe and in breach of its obligations under the European Social Charter. We need this scaffolding in order for meaningful work to develop. We can see the benefits of this in other European countries such as Denmark, Sweden and Finland where surveys regularly show more autonomy and discretion at work, greater social support and higher levels of job quality as well as experienced meaningfulness.

The Pandemic is raising questions for us all about what type of economy and society we need to address not only future pandemics but also to help mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis. There is no going back to the old normal.  Leaders may now recognise the relative insignificance of many of their organisations and that it is only through co-operation and institution building can a more resilient, inclusive and meaningful society be built that can prosper in the future. Once lauded for delivering high levels of shareholder return, they may now look with new eyes at not only the economic but the social and environmental value they are creating.

These new demands require leaders that are system leaders, institution builders and co-operators. This is a major departure and implies new metrics to hold them to account, new practices and new modes of organising and even, new ownership. The challenge is to institutionalise hope: hope for a better future and hope for more meaningful work. This period of lockdown is making people think more deeply about what is important in their lives, the lives of their families and their communities.  Seeing more clearly through the cleaner air we are now enjoying might be a good metaphor for thinking about meaning in our work.

To learn more about the Consulting and Coaching for Change Programme at the Saïd Business School, of which Marc Thompson is Academic Director,  visit its web page.