Meaning, Work and Social Responsibility
Article by Wayne Visser
Surprisingly little has been written about the search for meaning in a workplace or business context, and nothing, in my knowledge, has made the explicit link to corporate social responsibility (CSR). It is surprising, partly because meaning has been a serious topic of research and application for at least fifty years now, following the seminal work of Viktor Frankl and others, as have the fields of industrial psychology and CSR. But it is more surprising still, simply because work is where we spend about a third of lives. If meaning cannot be found in the workplace, our ability to lead a fulfilling life is seriously impaired.
The importance of understanding how work can contribute to meaning in life seems more critical now than ever before. Anecdotal evidence is mounting that people in the West are increasingly feeling a sense of existential crisis in their working lives. On the one hand, they are expecting more from their work experience, including that it will nurture personal development and self actualisation. On the other hand, they are finding the capitalist, corporate model of work to be lacking in a meaningful higher purpose, or to put it another way, the modern workplace and economy is devoid of a sense of soul.
Some may argue that this growing frustration in the Western workplace is a vindication of Karl Marx’s (1975) concept of the alienation of labour through capitalism, whereby work “does not belong to his essential being; that he therefore does not confirm himself in his work, but denies himself, feels miserable and not happy, does not develop free mental and physical energy, but mortifies his flesh and ruins his mind”.
Modern social commentators like Charles Handy are less extreme, arguing for reformation rather than revolution. In his book, The Hungry Spirit, which is subtitled “Beyond Capitalism – A Quest for Purpose in the Modern World”, Handy calls for capitalism to embrace the notion of social capital (and I would add ecological capital as well) in addition to the more traditional economic capital. He also emphasises the need for citizen companies, which demonstrate greater accountability and a restored balance between the rights and responsibilities of business.
The question remains, however, whether these ideas have any grounding in the theory of meaning on the one hand, and management theory on the other hand. According to Frankl’s logopsychology and logophilosophy, work – doing, or as he referred to it, realising creative values – constitutes one of three paths to meaning. “As long as creative values are in the forefront of the life task,” he noted, “their actualisation generally coincides with a person’s work”. In fact, his other two paths to meaning may be equally applicable in the work situation, even if less common, namely being, or the experience of values (e.g. love, truth, beauty), and perceiving, or the adoption of constructive attitudes (especially in the face of suffering).
Frankl’s notions of work as ideally being an expression of a life task are not dissimilar to iconic industrial psychologist Abraham Maslow’s conclusions about self-actualising individuals. Writing …
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Cite this article
Visser, W. (2003) Meaning, Work and Social Responsibility. Positive Living E-Zine, International Network on Personal Meaning, September.