"Seeking a job with a higher purpose is also a democratic aspiration"

Refusing bullshit jobs, working remotely, rethinking careers in the light of the ecological crisis…employees today want meaningful work, says Thomas Coutrot. Traditional ways of managing teams are in contradiction with the aspirations of today’s employees and damages their mental health. Worse, the search for purpose at work clashes with the current models of governance and organization.

Missions Publiques. In your latest book Working with a purpose(2), co-authored with Coralie Perez, you say that a “revolution of purpose” is currently taking place, guided by new social demands and ecological challenges. Have these demands really become a priority for workers?

Thomas Coutrot. We are experiencing increasing societal, sociological, and political developments in connection with the rising educational level of society. This is what sociologist Isabelle Ferreras calls the “grammar of democratic justice”: people are socialized in a society where the official norm is participation in decision-making and individual autonomy. This norm creates strong expectations. But at the same time, we are witnessing an evolution towards a more standardized work, regulated by processes (in terms of management), with predefined tasks, cut out and controlled by reporting procedures.

These bureaucratic procedures are in contradiction with social aspirations to participate in the decisions that concern us. In addition, with globalization and financialization, decision-making bodies are moving further away from employees. This contradiction seems to me to be very profound. And today, this feeling of suffering at work is an illustration of this and is expressed in many ways in the political and social life of our countries. More precisely, it fuels what is called the “great resignation”, the flight of employees from organizational modes that do not suit them.


Missions Publiques. The pandemic has highlighted the so-called “essential” jobs. In your book, you mention jobs that are generally low-skilled but that workers find the most meaningful (maternal assistants, construction workers, home care workers, etc.). How do you define this “purpose” among professions that, are, at first sight, so unrelated to one another?

Thomas Coutrot. In the home care sector, employees generally find a lot of value in their work because they have a very strong feeling of social usefulness. But this purpose is threatened because there is an inflation of time measurement procedures: time allocated to each act which leads to an intensification of work and above all to permanent control and surveillance. Under the cover of a so-called rationalization, work is reduced to a purely technical gesture, which is totally incoherent with the “caring” professions. We can understand the discomfort of employees who navigate in these waters.

Among industrial workers, it is the automation and algorithmization of work that threatens its meaning. For example, logistics workers in warehouses are guided by voice commands and no longer have any leeway in the way they work. This is not a problem of ethical coherence as in the care professions, but it is detrimental to their ability to develop.

On the side of senior managers, it is rather the feeling of social utility that is weakened. In David Graeber’s survey(3) , it was mainly executives who responded and who complained of doing useless or even harmful work: useless because it is often devoted to controlling the work of others; harmful because it sometimes harms the environment. This dimension is new in ethical conflicts, all jobs included. We are talking here about young engineers who resign or who, after graduating from top schools, do not want to join large polluting companies. But also workers who are in direct contact with chemical or toxic products, and likely to pollute.


Missions Publiques. So, what would be a job with meaning and values? Are there “good” and “bad” jobs?

Thomas Coutrot. Work is first and foremost an activity of transformation: it is about transforming the world to respond to needs.  But through the way we work, we also reproduce social norms (or we violate them if we have to do things we disapprove of). By working, we also transform ourselves: we are led – or not – to learn new things, to accumulate experience, to develop skills etc. Being useful, respecting one’s values, being able to grow: these are the three dimensions of having a meangful job. They are weakened by contemporary management methods. Losing the meaning of one’s work can constitute a psychosocial risk and lead to psychological health problems. Depressive symptoms are then multiplied by two, among workers as well as among executives.

Being interested in the purpose of work means first of all asking ourselves what we produce and how we produce it. Giving meaning to work means questioning its organization, its evaluation and the power relationships that run through it.

"When employees are not informed or consulted at all, any sort of change can have a very negative effect on their mental health

Thomas Coutrot

Statistician, economist and community activist (Les Economistes atterrés)

Missions Publiques. What is interesting, and rather at odds with the current discourse on work, is that you talk about work as a freedom…

Thomas Coutrot. We based our work on workplace psychology and ergonomics, which show that, in all human work, there is a necessary part of freedom to be able to carry out the assigned task correctly in the face of a reality that never goes quite as planned: machines that do not work properly, computer systems that bug, users who are necessarily unpredictable, etc. In all jobs, we come up against the same problems as in the past. In all professions, one is constantly confronted with the unexpected, one is forced to make choices not foreseen by the hierarchy or by the prescribers of the work. This is why work is a space of freedom. Current management models try to reduce as much as possible these margins of freedom, and this is what is at stake in the conflict about the meaning of work. Workers either leave, or suffer, or – much more rarely – resist and try to influence the organization of work.


Missions Publiques. And the more distant employees are from the decision-making bodies or from the recipients of their work (users or clients), the less they see the meaning of their work.

Thomas Coutrot. In the Dares surveys on working conditions, we regularly ask the question “Have you experienced a major change in your work over the last 12 months?” and we ask employees if they were informed, if they were consulted and if they had an influence on the way this change was implemented. When employees are not informed or consulted at all, any sort of change can have a very negative effect on their mental health(4). When they have been properly informed about the changes in question, the effects are still negative but significantly mitigated. When they have been consulted and listened to, i.e., they have been able to influence the change, there are no negative effects. On the other hand, when they have been consulted but feel that they have not been taken into account, the negative effects can be very serious.

Unfortunately, the labor policies of recent years have sought to unravel this power of action of employees. Instead of encouraging the construction and the capacities of intervention of the employees on their work, they have done exactly the opposite. Staff representatives have been abolished, CHSCTs (health, safety and working conditions committees) and local representation (interface between employer, employees and CSE) have been abolished.  The Acemo survey of the Dares showed that only 17% of the employees benefit today from the presence of a local representative, against 66% in 2017, before the Macron ordinances. Yet the proximity representation of employees is one of the essential building blocks for employees to be able to express themselves individually and collectively on their working conditions. It would have been necessary to improve the functioning of the staff delegates, not to suppress them.


Missions Publiques. Does that mean that to put meaning back into work, we  must give employees the power to act?

Thomas Coutrot. Yes, this is the key question. We have to give employees back the power to act on the conditions, organization and purpose of their work. In order to preserve the psychological health of employees, the priority should be to give them a counter-power in companies, so that they can elaborate among themselves alternative proposals to the transformations planned by the management and bring them before the managers, with an obligation for the latter to respond.

The fact remains that it is obviously not easy today to change the organization of work when management methods are defined and imposed according to the needs of the financial industry and the control of performance, driven by investors. The problem is systemic. The organization of work is a political issue that should not be the sole responsibility of managers and the shareholders who appoint them. For the choices made in the organization of work have major consequences for society, for health, for the environment, including democratic health. In other work (5), I have shown that the loss of autonomy at work was linked to electoral behavior, in particular to electoral abstention or extreme voting behavior.

(1)Thomas Coutrot is a statistician, economist and activist (Les Economistes atterrés), now a research associate at Ires (Institut de recherches économiques et sociales), after having directed from 2003 to 2022 the Health and Working Conditions Department at Dares (Ministry of Labor).
(2)Redonner du sens au travail, une aspiration révolutionnaire, Thomas Coutrot & Coralie Perez, collection La République des Idées, éditions du Seuil, 2022.
(3)Bullshit jobs, the rise of pointless work and what we can do about it, David Graeber, éditions Brochet, 2018.
(5)” Travail et bien-être psychologique “, Document d’étude Dares n°217, mars 2018, https://dares.travail-emploi.gouv.fr/sites/default/files/pdf/travail_et_bien-etre_tc_vd_2.pdf
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