In our increasing complex and uncertain world, the meaning and purpose of work and organisations is under pressure. The new Oxford Handbook of Meaningful Work, edited by Ruth Yeoman (Oxford), Katie Bailey (King’s College), Adrian Madden (Greenwich) and Marc Thompson (Oxford), argues for that meaningful work is important to organisations and to society on the cusp of change. In assessing our current state of knowledge, the Handbook seeks to show that applying meaningfulness to work, organisations and systems can help crack open some of the challenges we face - challenges such as the redesign of work, fostering new forms of work, recognising marginalised and unpaid work, organising for corporate social responsibility, and building practices of meaningfulness inside the organisation and beyond.

Victor Frankl observed that the search for meaning is a powerful motivator. Running through the Handbook is a general concern – ‘do we have a crisis of meaning?’ We can see evidence for this in de-industrialised, ‘left behind’ communities as people lose hope, and therefore a sense of meaning and purpose; in the jobs lost or degraded as a consequence of automation or economic shocks; in the alienation people feel when they cannot influence what happens to them in their lives. Such loss of meaning represents a failure of our societies to help us satisfy our fundamental need for meaning.

The Handbook authors advance (but don’t settle) an ongoing debate regarding the definition of meaningful work. A core definition takes meaningful work to be an activity (paid or unpaid) which aims at a significant, worthwhile, valuable outcome for ourselves or for others, and which we also find emotionally engaging. Scholars emphasise different aspects of this core definition – for some, meaningful work is more about personal experiences of meaning such as belonging, flow, control or self-transcendence; for others, meaningful work is an objective moral value. A point of agreement is that being able to do meaningful work has an important connection to experiencing meaning in life as a whole, and to human flourishing – and that having neglected the importance of meaningfulness for people, academics, practitioners and policy makers need to take a closer look. Meaningfulness can help us to appreciate what other goods people seek from work, apart from wages and status, such as freedom, autonomy and dignity. Meaningful work connects our need for meaning to organisational purpose, but it also challenges us to think about the kinds of purposes we should pursue, and whether these purposes are morally viable.

A common theme running through the Handbook is how work makes us, and how, in turn, we struggle to make work which matches our view of what kinds of people we should be. The moral conditions of work - dignity, virtue, freedom, and well-being - are all expressive of our desire for work which makes us human. But to realise this work, we need institutional supports. In particular, we need organisations which pursue morally valuable purposes, create power-sharing structures, and build human capabilities. If meaningful work is made and not given, then it is important to think about who gets to say what is meaningful about meaningful work, and what processes are in place for people to say what values and meanings are important to them. In this endeavour, some organisational practices are more supportive of meaningfulness than others, practices such as participation and engagement, belonging and identity, ethical culture and behaviours, and aligned accounting and management systems.

The Handbook highlights gaps. For example, more evidence on the cultural and occupational dimensions of meaningful work is needed. There would be great value in organisational experimentation focussing on how to design-in meaningfulness. Given that meaningfulness is a whole person approach, we also need to think about whether there are any limits on what organisations can be permitted to do to employees in their efforts to create meaningfulness. Beyond the organisation, we need to look at cross-cultural differences, the family, political economies, and the application of meaningfulness to other social and economic entities such as cities.

This volume provides valuable material for critical engagement. Meaningful work has much to offer practitioners grappling with the challenges of organisation and work. The editors hope it will help readers develop new ways of thinking about and acting upon meaningfulness in work and lives.

Dr Ruth Yeoman is a Fellow of Kellogg College, University of Oxford

The Oxford Handbook of Meaningful Work is available from Oxford University Press