Meaningful work: Tomorrow’s challenge for HR and leaders


« Happiness does not come from things. It comes from work and pride in what you do. »

 Mahatma M. K. Gandhi


Within the framework of the ‘Master’s Degree in Human Resources & Careers Management’ at the Universities of Geneva, Lausanne, Neuchâtel and Fribourg, Olivia Guscelli Ngabonziza and Caroline Greutert wrote a dissertation entitled: "Meaningful work. New opportunities for HR and leadership practices".


Meaningful work – a sense of a meaning in what we do – has been much discussed and researched in recent years. The erosion of meaning at the workplace is arguably one of the major challenges of our time. Human resources are in the focus of business leaders, against the backdrop of organizational transformation, knowledge circulation, and digitalization. The human resource is increasingly seen as an intangible asset that improves organizational performance and competitiveness.

Moreover, work is an important part in everyone's life.  One of the best ways to find meaning in one's life is to find meaning in one's work. Both quests resonate with each other. Work is a way to earn one’s living but also, simultaneously, a source of socialization and possibly a vector for fulfillment. In particular, works contributes to the individuation process, or identity-building, that widely lays upon recognition by others. This is only possible if work makes sense – for the person and people around her.


As part of a ‘Master of Advanced Studies in Human Resources’ degree, two researchers led a study among 450 organizations (including about 20 IOs) in French-speaking Switzerland, in a variety of sectors. Their main conclusions are as follows:


Does the size of the organization or company impact the meaning at work?

The researchers found that the perception of meaning at work is similar between large firms (over 500 staff) and very small firms. Businesses that employ between 50 and 100 people are the least conducive to the perception of meaning.


Is meaning connected to which industry one works for?

Results show that industries that are related to values considered as human or useful to society (HR services, humanitarian action, public administration) are those that score the highest. However, the humanitarian sector does not, unexpectedly, have the highest score. One should keep in mind that persons who answered our questionnaire work at Headquarters (i.e. in French-speaking Switzerland) and not in the field. Field personnel can see the direct effects of their work (when a hospital is created inside a refugee camp, or the response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, for example), while people at HQ no longer have this direct perception even if they share the values, the mission and the commitment to their organization. In addition, both leadership and managers tend to think that the organization's meaningful mission is self-sufficient, and that they do not have to put in place HR practices that sustain meaning (those can be moments dedicated to communicating the vision of the organization, its objectives, its priorities and regular addresses by the leadership). On the long run, this leads to erosion in the sense of meaning.


Are meaningful practices being implemented and if so, how often?

Study results show that the majority of meaningful practices are absent from organizations, including exemplary behaviors of the manager, regular professional feedback or communication on the vision of the organization. On a positive note, other practices such as organizational justice seem more frequent, even if their implementation remains sporadic. This suggests that some interviewees still perceive their organization as "unfair" or that staff are somehow treated arbitrarily.


Research has shown that practices implemented by HR and leadership to reinforce a sense of meaning in the workplace are often still in their infancy.


Olivia and Caroline, themselves HR managers, question the role of human resources to tackle tomorrow's challenges. Staff members expect responsible attitudes and behaviors that inspire values such as trust, fairness, honesty, gratitude and listening, resulting in a good social climate. Conversely, when an organization ignores these practices or neglects to implement them, an exposure to the emergence of harmful individual and social behaviors arises.

In order to increase employee motivation (and, in turn, organizational performance), general management must endorse these practices and create appropriate frameworks. Concretely, this amounts to training managers and to helping them acquire necessary skills so they can, in turn, support their staff. HR has to guide and lead business change along these lines. The Director of Human Resources has to advocate for it, and build awareness among the leadership, using indicators to demonstrate potentially high dividends.


Olivia Guscelli Ngabonziza and Caroline Greutert will give a lecture on their paper’s topic at the HR show in Geneva (Palexpo) on 2 October 2019.

More information on human resources diplomas at the University of Geneva:

Four Significant HR and Leadership Practices for Employees

  • Organizational justice: treat all employees fairly
  • Access to information: the reporting officer opens access to information to his or her staff so they understand the impacts of their work
  • Communication on organizational objectives: the manager must communicate on organizational objectives to ensure staff members perceive the impact of their contributions
  • Exemplarity: actions matching words

These practices, inexpensive, allow employees to feel useful, to realize their potential and to take part to a common endeavor, while being valued for their performance. In total, Olivia Guscelli Ngabonziza’s and Caroline Greutert’s paper makes recommendations on 19 practices.



 Research results show that meaningful work does depend on the size of businesses:

  • 500 staff and over: businesses can generally tap into resources and other means to put in place practices that will sustain meaningful work – or at the very least, they are aware of their potential impact.
  • 1 to 5 staff: the leader, founder and HR person is the same person. Staff members are involved since the early days and form a core team. They interact with the founder on a daily basis. Staff members are naturally aware of their contribution and can see how their work contributes to their business.
  • 50 to 100 staff: these businesses are often undergoing a rapid growth process of both their activity and headcount, and are focused on it. They need time to put in place HR management focused on meaning as well as associated resources.

 These results can be extrapolated: a small team within a major organization can show cohesion and meaningfulness effects similar to those of a very small business. During an expansion phase, the meaning of work needs to be kept explicit to ensure that initial motivation does not wear off.


This article has also been published in the UN special magazine.

September 11, 2019

Les termes utilisés pour désigner des personnes sont pris au sens générique; ils ont à la fois la valeur d'un masculin et d'un féminin.