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The lived experience of meaningful work in a stigmatized occupation: a descriptive phenomenological inquiry




Mercurio, Zachary A., author
Korte, Russell F., advisor
Chalofsky, Neal, committee member
Chermack, Thomas, committee member
Dik, Bryan, committee member

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Experiencing work as meaningful has been linked to positive personal and organizational outcomes, such as increased engagement, job satisfaction, motivation, positive work behaviors, performance, and an overall sense of well-being (e.g. Lysova, Allan, Dik, Duffy, & Steger, 2019; Rosso, Dekas, & Wrzesniewski, 2010). However, while research seeking to explain the numerous factors that contribute to and result from the experience of meaningful work has proliferated, empirical studies directly investigating the lived experience of meaningful work in diverse occupational contexts are limited. Moreover, the lived experience of meaningless work and its relationship to the experience of meaningful work is not well understood. For workers in stigmatized occupations – jobs relegated by society as physically, socially, or morally undesirable due to the nature of the work – theorists have proposed numerous unique barriers to the experience of meaningfulness, thereby putting these workers at an increased risk for negative outcomes, including disengagement, lower commitment, and low satisfaction (e.g. Ashforth & Kreiner, 1999; Blustein, 2011). At the same time, direct inquiry into the lived experience of meaningful work in stigmatized occupations remains sparse. Hence, the purpose of this study was to better understand this experience. This was accomplished using a qualitative approach enacted through a descriptive phenomenological method to uncover what the experience of meaningful work was like for a group of university custodians. Drawing from emerging research (e.g. Bailey & Madden, 2017; Mitra & Buzzanell, 2017), the experience of meaningful work was assumed in this study to be tensional and necessarily linked to the phenomena of meaningless work and meaning-making in work. Consequently, these phenomena were also explored and related to the experience of meaningful work. The descriptive phenomenological analysis resulted in the identification of common elements of the experiences of meaningful work, meaningless work, and meaning-making in work among university custodians. Meaningful work was experienced by each custodian and was characterized by enacting a learned positive approach to work, having and experiencing pride in the work, maintaining meaningfulness, experiencing ongoing external validation of the self and work, enacting kinds of ongoing self-validation, helping others, and developing positive and personal relationships. However, meaningless work was also experienced by each custodian and was characterized by experiencing degradation by others, losing a sense of self at work, experiencing threats to the craft of cleaning, doing repetitive and purposeless tasks, and having kinds of negative experiences with supervisors and management. The experiences of both meaningful work and meaningless work emerged as interwoven meanings in work and were experienced as temporary, volatile, and fluid phenomena. This study adds to the body of meaningful work research and theory by clarifying how the construct of meaningful work is lived through in a stigmatized occupational context, and by exploring the phenomena of meaningless work and meaning-making in work and their relationship to the experience of meaningful work. Moreover, the study offers practitioners an understanding and awareness of the elements that may foster the experience of meaningfulness for workers in stigmatized occupations.


2019 Summer.
Includes bibliographical references.

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meaningful work
descriptive phenomenology
stigmatized work


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