mutual and meaningful

Published by the Fabian Society in ‘Minds at Work’.

Mental ill-health is on the rise – and one of the reasons is the way we organise work. Precarious, controlled and ‘voiceless’ work makes all of us vulnerable to mental ill-health. The European Working Conditions Survey 2000-2001, for example, highlighted the connections between the intensification of work and harm to workers’ health and wellbeing. In a survey of middle-aged Australians, Dorothy Broom and colleagues found that poor quality work is as bad for health outcomes as unemployment. Drawing on the UK Workplace Employment Relations Study, Duncan Gallie, professor of sociology at Nuffield College, Oxford and colleagues have shown that wellbeing requires people at work to be able to have a voice with a diversity of channels for them to be heard. Voice channels include both task discretion (having personal control over one’s job tasks) and organisational participation (which has an indirect effect on positive working conditions). But to secure positive health outcomes, voice must be incorporated into corporate governance and supported by a culture of mutual concern.

Neglecting meaningfulness in work

Social justice demands that we mitigate the harm caused by poor quality work. In her model of a political economy of health inequalities, Clare Bambra of Newcastle University shows how psychosocial risks are unevenly distributed in the workplace. This is because employees located at different positions in the organisation experience varying job demands and levels of control over their work.  Addressing such inequalities requires an extension of how we think about the nature of work, and especially its contribution to making our lives worth living. When we talk about work contributing to meaning in life, we are essentially looking at whether work involves doing things which people can judge to be significant, valuable or otherwise worthy of their humanity. But although initiatives such as the International Labour Organisation’s decent work agenda seek to improve the global provision of good work, they have little to say about meaning and purpose at work.

Meaningful work is one way we can improve the lives of working people. Although there is increasing practitioner interest in meaningful work, the injustice of having to do non-meaningful work has yet to influence policymaking. But at a political juncture when disaffection and alienation are increasing the appeal of populism, we may legitimately ask: do we have a crisis of meaning? The answer is yes, if we consider the harmful effects of lost meaning upon people who have been displaced by deindustrialisation. This has resulted in communities suffering what Princeton University’s Anne Case and Angus Deaton call ‘deaths of despair’, where a loss of meaning in life exposes people to poor mental and physical health outcomes.

In his work on the ‘Glasgow Effect’, Strathclyde University’s global public health director Professor Sir Harry Burns found widespread health inequalities in young and middle-aged people whose families had been hit by deindustrialisation, exacerbated by poor planning decisions in housing and industrial policy. Adverse childhood experiences of this kind led to premature mortality, caused particularly by drugs, alcohol, suicides, violence and accidents. Yet people presenting with alcoholism at Burns’s surgery refused to give up drinking. His patients would tell him: “[I] don’t care, life is not very nice … drink makes me feel better.” In a BBC Radio 4 interview, Burns argued that public policy must ‘tackle the social, environmental and economic dislocation felt by people’ in order to ‘help people regain a sense of purpose and meaning in life’. He says this would necessitate innovations in social cohesion which move away from ‘doing things to people, rather than doing things with people’. Thinking this way has immediate implications for the organisation of work.

Meaningfulness in work

Meaningful work has been shown to benefit employees’ mental health, as well as generating positive organisational outcomes. The experience of making a contribution which matters because it is morally valuable or otherwise worthwhile supports wellbeing. Joanne Ciulla, Rutgers Business School, defines meaningful work as ‘morally worthy work in a morally worthy organisation’, while Austrian psychoanalyst Victor Frankl described the drive to meaningfulness as the ‘will to meaning’. This drive is extremely difficult to eliminate. Indeed, people will use whatever materials are to hand, including poor quality and precarious work, to craft meaningfulness. The philosopher, Susan Wolf, says that the value of meaningfulness aims at independently valuable objects we find affectively engaging. Meaningfulness arises when ‘subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness’, where the experience of meaningfulness is more likely to occur when a person becomes actively connected to and emotionally involved in something or someone of value.

In my research on meaningful work, I argue that people generate meaningfulness for themselves and others when they promote the good for those things – people, animals, communities, nature, organisations, etc – which are valuable in their own right and to which they are emotionally attached. Such life-promoting activities are experienced as meaningful when they involve us in looking after valuable things, through work which is designed for autonomy, freedom and dignity.

Having a voice is a key organisational pathway for accessing meaningfulness. Voice systems recognise workers as having the status and capabilities to co-produce the values and meanings which are needed to get the work done. However, productive meaning-making, and therefore the experience of meaningfulness, is stifled when organisations make no attempt to secure fairness, trust and concern in production and distribution. Values such as fairness are used by mutual organisations to underpin their voice systems. This helps workers become confident in exercising voice, and hence to play their part in creating the morally valuable purposes and emotional connections needed for meaningful work.


Mutuality is an organising philosophy which describes how we are to live with one another. As such, mutuality is concerned with the values, principles, and practices which specify the conditions under which we are prepared to join our effort to those of others in order to secure together what one cannot secure alone.  The objective of mutual organisation is to distribute among all affected stakeholders a fair share of the benefits and burdens arising from their collective activities.

Having a voice at work unlocks meaningfulness. This involves shared responsibility for forming the purpose, making the rules, and implementing the tasks necessary for promoting the good for valuable objects, or those objects for the sake of which the organisation exists. This generates a richness of positive meanings which people can adopt to lend significance to their work and lives. Co-owned organisations are potentially supportive environments for experiencing meaningfulness when members can make the decisions needed to care for the valuable objects and purposes.

A mutual philosophy can be taken up under any type of ownership – including shareholder ownership – which is committed to developing a member orientation. However, co-owned models, such as employee ownership, enjoy a distinct advantage because they hardwire the member perspective into the organisation’s governance, obligating management to institute an enduring voice system. A 2012 report for the Employee Ownership Association, Fit for Work, showed health benefits for members of employee-owned businesses who also experienced significant levels of control.

New kinds of organisations

Organisations can be encouraged to incorporate meaningfulness and mutuality into work design. They can also consider ways to institute governance-level practices. Phil Bielby of Hull University develops a normative legal theory of mental health vulnerability which combines rights and care. Adopted into corporate governance, a ‘right to care’ in mental health contexts puts duties upon organisations to examine how their work practices make people more or less vulnerable to poor mental health. Mutual organisations which promote meaningful work are well placed to adopt a ‘right to care’ because they are already required by their constitutions to address the fundamental question of how to share power.

In his concept of an associative democracy, the sociologist Paul Hirst argued that modern societies need to create fresh sources of social solidarity. He said that solidarity ‘has to be built up from active cooperation in more complexly divided and more individuated populations’. A promising source of such solidarity are the co-owned organisations which foster orientations of care towards morally valuable purposes. Such organisations reconfigure the traditional distribution of decision-making entitlements and obligations, making the provision of democratic voice a management duty rather than a gift which is dependent upon enlightened management. Mobilising the voice of workers through meaningfulness and mutuality exposes the varieties of ill-being in the organisation of work, directing us towards novel policy solutions for a reformed political economy.