Beyond Social Mission: Understanding how employees in Australian community service organisations experience their work as meaningful

Author: Llainey Smith

Smith, Llainey, 2018 Beyond Social Mission: Understanding how employees in Australian community service organisations experience their work as meaningful, Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

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Social mission, the socially-beneficial purpose of an organisation, is a primary feature of community service organisations (CSOs). Much existing literature around social mission in CSOs focuses on its impact at an organisational level. It is viewed as providing a competitive advantage for CSOs in terms of funding acquisition, attracting clients, organisational performance, and importantly, in attracting and retaining staff. However at the individual level, working in CSOs is often associated with challenges resulting from constrained funding within the sector, e.g. low pay, high workload and reduced job security. An implicit assumption in the literature is that social mission, through its contribution to meaningful work, is key in attracting and retaining CSO employees despite these challenges. However, little is known about experiences of meaningful work in CSOs or how social mission contributes to this.

The research presented in this thesis sought to understand the experience of meaningful work for CSO employees, focussing on the role of social mission. Interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) was used to understand the contribution of social mission to the experiences of meaningful work of 36 CSO employees in South Australia. Meaningful work was shown to be a feature of CSO work for participants. It had positive outcomes for both their sense of self and their experience of work. However, meaningful work also left these CSO employees open to exploitation by their organisation. Early indications were that social mission played a strong role in both perceptions of work as meaningful and outcomes of meaningful work. Further analyses were undertaken into two aspects of meaningful work where social mission was anticipated to be particularly relevant: factors influencing meaningful work; and how employees actively shape their work to be meaningful.

Consistent with the assumption described above, social mission-related activity was demonstrated to be a primary contributor to meaningful work for participants. However, social mission alone did not account for their experiences of meaningful work in CSOs. Social interactions and the work and working conditions also influenced participants’ experiences of meaningfulness in their work.

Importantly, consideration of how participants engaged in sense-making and job crafting to actively shape their work to be meaningful demonstrated that experiences of meaningful work in CSOs were intentional rather than passive. In doing so, participants were able to view their self and their work in a positive light.

These findings were then used to build on the existing literature around meaningful work. In doing so, a new, integrated sense-making framework of meaningful work in CSOs incorporating antecedents and outcomes was developed.

This study demonstrates that while an organisation’s social mission plays an integral role in employee experiences of meaningful work in CSOs, it alone is insufficient to entirely explain what makes work meaningful for CSO employees. This has implications for the way that meaningful work in CSOs is characterised and promoted within the workplace. A further contribution of this research is the introduction of a new, holistic framework for understanding meaningful work in the applied context.

Keywords: meaningful work, community services

Subject: Social Work thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2018
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Associate Professor Deb King