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Mutual and meaningful

By embedding the principles of mutuality in workplaces, we can amplify the voice of workers and ensure that work is meaningful. This can play a major role in addressing mental ill-health, as Ruth Yeoman explains.



Mental ill-health is on the rise – and one of the reasons is the way we organise work. Precarious, controlled and ‘voiceless’ work makes all of us vulnerable to mental ill-health. The European Working Conditions Survey 2000-2001, for example, highlighted the connections between the intensification of work and harm to workers’ health and wellbeing.  Wellbeing requires people at work to be able to have a voice with a diversity of channels for them to be heard. I argue enabling this voice can be incorporated into corporate governance and supported by a culture of mutual concern in Minds at Work, a new Changing Work Centre report.

Social justice demands that we mitigate the harm caused by poor quality work. Addressing the inequalities of psychosocial risks in the workplace requires an extension of how we think about the nature of work, and especially its contribution to making our lives worth living.

Meaningful work is one way we can improve the lives of working people. Although there is increasing practitioner interest in meaningful work, the injustice of having to do non-meaningful work has yet to influence policymaking. But at a political juncture when disaffection and alienation are increasing the appeal of populism, we may legitimately ask: do we have a crisis of meaning? The answer is yes, if we consider the harmful effects of lost meaning upon people who have been displaced by deindustrialisation.

Meaningful work has been shown to benefit employees’ mental health, as well as generating positive organisational outcomes. The experience of making a contribution which matters because it is morally valuable or otherwise worthwhile supports wellbeing.

In my research on meaningful work, I argue that people generate meaningfulness for themselves and others when they promote the good for those things – people, animals, communities, nature, organisations, etc. – which are valuable in their own right and to which they are emotionally attached. Such life-promoting activities are experienced as meaningful when they involve us in looking after valuable things, through work which is designed for autonomy, freedom and dignity.

Having a voice is a key organisational way of achieving this. Voice systems recognise workers as having the status and capabilities to co-produce the values and meanings which are needed to get the work done. However, productive meaning-making is stifled when organisations make no attempt to secure fairness, trust and concern in production and distribution. Organisations therefore need some kind of mutuality in their models of organising.

Mutuality is an organising philosophy which describes how we are to live with one another. It is concerned with the values, principles, and practices which specify the conditions under which we are prepared to join our effort to those of others in order to secure together what one cannot secure alone. The objective of mutual organisation is to distribute among all affected stakeholders a fair share of the benefits and burdens arising from their collective activities.

Having a voice at work unlocks meaningfulness. It involves shared responsibility for forming the purpose, making the rules, and implementing the tasks necessary for promoting the good for valuable objects, or those objects for the sake of which the organisation exists. Co-owned organisations are potentially supportive environments for experiencing meaningfulness when members can make the decisions needed for purposes which matter to them.

A mutual philosophy can be taken up under any type of ownership including shareholder ownership. However, co-owned models, such as employee ownership, enjoy a distinct advantage because they hardwire the member perspective into the organisation’s governance, obligating management to institute an enduring voice system. A 2012 report for the Employee Ownership Association, Fit for Work, showed health benefits for members of employee-owned businesses who also experienced significant levels of control.

Organisations can be encouraged to incorporate meaningfulness and mutuality into work design. They can also consider ways to institute governance-level practices. Adopted into corporate governance, a ‘right to care’ in mental health contexts puts duties upon organisations to examine how their work practices make people more or less vulnerable to poor mental health. Mutual organisations which promote meaningful work are well placed to adopt a ‘right to care’ because they are already required by their constitutions to address the fundamental question of how to share power.

Mobilising the voice of workers exposes the varieties of ill-being in the organisation of work, directing us towards novel policy solutions for a reformed political economy.

Read Minds at Work here.

Ruth Yeoman

Dr Ruth Yeoman is a fellow of Kellogg College, University of Oxford and leads research projects at the Centre for Mutual and Co-owned Business.


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