Exploring the Role of Existential Labour and Its Influence on Employee Well-Being

  • Lakshmi Chandrasekaran

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Meaningful work within organisations has developed and changed in terms of its conceptualisation and function. Organisations today are more focused on enabling purpose-based work with greater experiences of meaningfulness and advocate for improving the well-being of employees. However, this is difficult to implement without understanding how meaningfulness is perceived and managed by contemporary workers. That said, the studies presented in this thesis challenge several prevailing assumptions in the literature to suggest that ‘meaning management’ and possible misalignment between organisationally desired meaningfulness and the employee’s sense of meaningfulness is harmful to employees. We use a person-environment lens to explore the idea that misfit or experiences of meaningfulness dissonance will lead to stress-related outcomes such as burnout and alienation. Additionally, this research specifically tests propositions put forth by Bailey et al., (2018) on Existential Labour, to understand how individuals cope with meaningfulness dissonance. Three studies have been conducted as part of validating the newly developed measure of Existential labour and Meaningfulness Dissonance. A research model has been developed as a part of the validation process, that examines the strategies under existential labour and its relationship with negative well-being outcomes. For initial validation of the proposed construct of existential labour, 276 participants were analysed to explore the factor structure of existential labour. Another sample of 304 participants was tested to confirm the factor structure. EFA and CFA analysis identified 2 factors under existential labour, which were theoretically derived i.e. deep and surface existential acting. Construct and criterion validity confirmed 10 items under Existential Labour Measure (ExLM). The measure was then tested in a hypothesised model in two field studies along with meaningfulness dissonance (MD) and negative well-being indicators. A weekly lagged study with 270 working professionals from the UK using mediation analysis across three-time points showed that deep existential acting significantly mediated the relationship between MD and alienation. Finally, this research also contributes towards understanding within-person fluctuations of existential labour on well-being outcomes. Week-level data was collected from 273 working professionals in the UK using Prolific. Data was collected across 12 weeks. Multilevel mediation analysis showed that weekly deep and surface existential acting significantly mediates weekly perceptions of MD and negative well-being outcomes (i.e. cynicism, depersonalisation and alienation). Cross-level interactions with organisational psychological safety as the moderator showed interaction effects between weekly deep existential acting and depersonalisation. In other words, employees that perceived high organisational psychological safety, had lower experiences of weekly deep existential acting and depersonalisation at work. Taken together the studies conducted provide both internal and external validity to the theoretically derived research model of this thesis and also provides strong evidence towards the negative repercussions of engaging in existential acting strategies.
Date of AwardFeb 2022
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorMatthew Carter (Supervisor) & Michael Butler (Supervisor)


  • Meaningful Work
  • Existential Labour
  • dissonance
  • alienation
  • burnout
  • scale validation
  • diary study
  • multilevel analaysis
  • P-E fit theory

Cite this