Work and Employment
The modern nonprofit workforce often simultaneously attempts to build a career, provide for their material needs, nurture personal relationships, and benefit others – all through their work.
I examine the tensions that arise for people between personal needs and altruistic aims,
with a particular focus on the work-life interface.
The dark side of deeply meaningful work
While people increasingly seek meaningful work, we know little about potential downsides to that meaningful work. This project draws upon in-depth interview data with 82 international aid workers to detail the multi-faceted work-relationship experience among those in deeply meaningful work. First, I find that people who experience their work as deeply meaningful have high work devotion. I identify boundary inhibition as a mechanism to explain why they participate more willingly in overwork and erratic work, despite giving rise to time- and trust-based conflict in their relationships. Second, I find that people with high work devotion often also experience emotional distance in their personal relationships when their close others don’t value their work (i.e. occupational value heterophily). This disconnection–based conflict compounds the time- and trust-based conflict and engenders an emotionally agonizing situation, which I call work-relationship turmoil. Third, and in contrast, when close others do value their partner’s work (i.e. occupational value homophily) it fosters an emotional connection and offers an avenue for work-relationship enrichment, mitigating the time- and trust-based conflict arising from overwork and erratic work. People with high work devotion understand that occupational value homophily is a conflict mitigation tool. Respondents actively sought value homophilous relationships, both through the pursuit of longer-term, sustaining relationships with friends, family, and significant others, and also through more temporary relationships — colloquially referred to as affairs. The paper identifies mechanisms for the double-edged sword of deeply meaningful work, providing guidance and support to students, managers, and organizations. Furthermore, insights regarding employee well-being likely have carry-on effects to organizational performance and the clients served by international aid workers and the nonprofit workforce more broadly. This paper is accepted for publication at the Journal of Management Studies and is available here.
Retention of the discontented
Work-life research often focuses attention on “work-family” conflict experienced by people in established, nuclear families. This project examines how people who desire a family experience and navigate deeply meaningful work. Using interview data on 82 international aid workers, paired with seven years of longitudinal survey and parsed resume data, I identify that people with family aspirations and high work devotion experience greater stress in career decision-making than their family-rooted counterparts or those who aren’t devoted to work. My research reveals that when facing this decision, people with family aspirations often double down and prioritize work, suggesting that people who are devoted to work fear the loss of meaning that it provides, despite the high cost to thwarted personal aspirations. I suggest that organizations fostering meaningful work may paradoxically retain employees who are deeply personally discontented, likely having negative effects on both their well-being and their performance at work.
Working to Help Others Work
Many people who aim to help others through their work do not simply close down the computer at the end of the day — they work directly with clients and must navigate complicated work-life boundaries as a result. Driven by the overarching question of how work-life boundaries are experienced by people in relational work, in 2016 I began an in-depth field study of staff across ten workforce development organizations in the Twin Cities. Though there is a robust stream of scholarship that examines how discretion on the part of front-line workers influences policy implementation, limited attention has been paid to their private lives or to their experiences of the work-life interface. This project develops more robust theory with implications for practice that integrates considerations of front-line employees’ work-life experiences and public service work practices. I am undertaking this project in collaboration with Robin Phinney, a research associate at the Humphrey School’s Future Services Institute. We are currently in the analysis phase of these data.
Beyond assumptions of altruism
While there is a vigorous stream of scholarship in public management regarding the concept of “public service motivation” (PSM), the literature is relatively quiet regarding how a person’s PSM interacts with other motivating work values or personal, non-work considerations. Furthermore, scholarship has long identified that nonprofit employees are more satisfied, and that prosocial behavior leads to more meaningful work; however we know little about how altruistic motivations influence various work outcomes when compared to other motivating work values. This project demonstrates that job satisfaction and turnover in the nonprofit sector are more heavily influenced by an employee’s experiences of cognitive engagement at work and opportunities for advancement than by the desire to help others (i.e. PSM). I use longitudinal survey data on aid workers and advanced methodological techniques from psychology to test which motivating work values, when fulfilled, most strongly predict job satisfaction and turnover. I find that the extent to which an organization advances public service aims does not significantly increase job satisfaction, even when respondents hold high public service motivation. Instead, career advancement and cognitive engagement are more influential. The paper demonstrates to scholars and managers the necessity to use a more expansive framework and scale when considering employee motivation.