Work offers bread, community, identity and value – or then again not

Even the most monotonous of work might feel satisfying if you can recognize your place in the greater whole. Fairness is also a significant factor in whether work is perceived as meaningful.

At the Verla paper mill, in the Kymenlaakso region of Southeast Finland, you can still see grooves worn into the floor of the cardboard sorting division. They are the result of Maria Mattson’s work spanning over five decades, until she had to be practically forced into retirement at the age of 77.

Nowadays, Verla is a museum and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Visitors can get to know the early 20th-century factory environment, and the strenuous, monotonous and low-paid work that was once done there. 

Today we have come to expect that at least specialist work offers workers meaning, a decent standard of living, engaging challenges and opportunities to express themselves. And yet, many are at risk of exhaustion.

What made it possible for the workers to enjoy their time at Verla? What kind of meaning did churning out cardboard offer them?

The value of community

Before the modernization of society, factories used to be communities. Each person had a role, and the more experienced older workers served as mentors for the younger ones.

"The monotonous nature of the work is not necessarily a problem, if there is a sense of community; you derive meaning, and feel like an important part of something bigger," says the historian, Mona Mannevuo.

Perhaps a sense of capability and the appreciation of the community were present at Verla. The workers knew what was expected of them and knew their business. Maria Mattson, who worked hard for decades, did not even need scales, she knew the weight of cardboard like the back of her hand. Of course, the modest pension also encouraged her to continue at her job for as long as possible.

The assembly line split work into pieces

Finnish post-war society and its working conditions were rapidly modernizing. The heavy war reparations demanded by the Soviet Union certainly had a part to play there. Factories were keen to learn, especially from the United States.

"The idea behind the assembly line was to split the work into sections so that the competence of any one individual was less important. Workers were replaceable and owners faceless. The social and communal aspects of work, and affinity towards the employer, were lost," says Mannevuo.

Mannevuo recognizes similar features in contemporary knowledge work. People don't always understand why they do the work they do. Faceless bureaucracy leads to boredom and fatigue, and one loses one's sense of purpose within the bigger picture. It is a phenomenon that only gets accentuated in the globalized corporate world.

"On the other hand, you can find pride in your work in modern manufacturing, too. In Turku, the Meyer shipyard is currently finishing construction on the world's biggest cruise ship. It must be a gratifying moment for all those involved once it finally sets out to sea.”

When a person has a sense of belonging, even assembly line work can be meaningful. In post-war management studies, this was compared to putting out a fire by passing a water bucket from one person to the next: the goal is clear to everyone.

The need for feedback

Psychologists know that working is good for us. It helps us to keep up with the rhythm of everyday life, provides for social contact and financial gain. Whilst at work, people are going to face intellectual challenges, learn new things and generally stay alert.

" In modern society, a person gains an enormous amount of material, social and psychological resources through work," states Marko Elovainio, a professor of psychology.

The majority of the day is spent at work. Therefore, for better or worse, the period of exposure to whatever happens there, is long.

A worker internalizes their team’s attitudes. It is a vital part of professional identity. A view of what constitutes good work performance is formed meanwhile.

“Whether you are a professor or shelf-stacker, your work has a set of performance criteria by which you are evaluated. Positive feedback shapes a good sense of self, which is a basic human need,” Elovainio says.

An overall favourable experience of oneself is attained through one’s community. A researcher seeks the approval of their work from the scientific community, not from trolls on social media.

Fair treatment

If work becomes too difficult to control or there is too much of it, the employee is at risk of burnout. One of the symptoms is that the work loses its meaning.

The sense of justness in decision-making process has a huge impact on whether the work is perceived as meaningful.

“Any experience of unfair treatment weakens the sense of purpose - for instance a bunch of slackers being rewarded with a bonus, or a director’s know-nothing nephew being promoted to a managerial position - such events undermine any sense of purpose," says Elovainio.

According to Elovainio, there is a tacit agreement between the workers and the executive that presumes mutual respect and fair treatment. 

"If executives violate that agreement, employees will feel like they don't matter, and the whole situation goes sour. The leadership can quite easily spoil the mood in the workplace."

Instead, listening, asking, and informing are great tools for getting even the more difficult issues sorted. The most important thing is that the employees are heard. Still, it is astonishingly common that workers are just told what to do.

Is the mental buffer holding up?

The lack of just treatment is also a health hazard, as it causes great stress. It burdens in two ways: by eliminating both the sense of control over your work and the feeling of being valued. 

In the early noughties, Elovainio toured health care districts, presenting results on how fairness impacts sick leave. In units where employees felt they were treated fairly, sick leave was 30 percent lower compared to those where there was felt to be a lack of fairness.

According to Elovainio, the current shortage of nurses is a sign of dissatisfaction with their working conditions. Even a raise was not enough to curb the exodus. The work itself has grown more strenuous, while the workers are no longer prepared to toil away as much as they did earlier.

"Covid certainly had a big impact. Nurses were stretched, but in many cases, the employer could've handled the situation better. As I was reading the morning paper, I wanted to shout, 'Nooo! that´s not the way to do it!’" Elovainio says, with a wry chuckle.

People can withstand a heavy workload if there is an opportunity to have a say in when and how the work is done. But even that buffer wears down eventually. At that point, any sense of the work being reasonable begins to fade away.

Burnout was commonplace in the past, too

In agrarian society, nature set the rhythm for everyday life; in modern society the clock holds all the cards. According to Mona Mannevuo, burnout is the product of an industrialized society.

“The more progress progresses, the more prevalent burnout becomes."

Even so, burnout is not just a present-day phenomenon. It has been a constant cause of concern for over a hundred years.

"Workers in the 19th century got tired. Businessmen and women of the British upper class suffered from neurasthenia, whose symptoms resemble those of burnout," explains Mannevuo.

What wore out the women of the upper class?

"Overseeing servants, maintaining social contacts, keeping up appearances, and guarding morality was more than enough work."

A cruel conundrum

Gradually, work became a measure of human dignity. Work was first seen as a moral and Christian duty, and then it was associated with society and being a good citizen.

"This can be seen in employment policy and the government programme. The mindset is that if you are unemployed, you are not pulling your weight in society. This is a flawed way of thinking when we can't offer work to everyone," Mannevuo reflects.

The current situation is absurd. According to Mannevuo:

"Some people are swamped with work, to the point of exhaustion, while others are unemployed against their will. It's a cruel conundrum."

In postwar Finland, attempts were made to organize work for everyone, each according to their ability. The health insurance system was still in its infancy. There was concern that idleness would lead to a sense of rootlessness, alienation, and people losing their way. Work, meanwhile, would offer a sense of community and a place in the world.

"It was less a question of whether the work was enjoyable and more about everyone finding their own place. And there was a genuine belief that such a place could be found for everyone," Mannevuo says.

Unlike today, back then education was not as essential. Nowadays almost all jobs require at least certification, skills – and education.

Modern rush

A certain hostility towards idleness is part of the belief in progress: quite simply, civilized, modern people are busy. It´s suspect if someone is not striving for something.

"People are constantly talking about how much work they do and how much they have on their plate. It is only possible to relax with a clear conscience during the summer holidays, and even then it is only considered acceptable after a year of hard work," says Mannevuo.

In the 1960s, an article concerned with the risks of increasing amounts of free time was published in the Finnish mental health magazine, Mielenterveys. Automatization meant less work, and that was felt to be detrimental at a personal level. There were discussions about a shorter working week already back then, but nothing came of it. 

"I don’t believe that even artificial intelligence will lead to mass unemployment and fewer working hours. The technological development has not liberated people; in fact, the increase in digital communication and new platforms have merely added to the stress."

Twenty years ago, few would have thought that someone could make a living as a social media influencer. Yet research now shows that even influencers are exhausted by their work.

Rebuilding identity

Leisure is socially acceptable after a long career. Retiring, however, is a tight spot for many because it forces us to redefine ourselves. Belonging to a community outside of our working environment eases the process.

Unemployed people need experiences of community, accomplishment and competence, too. If we can no longer find work in our own field, we may need to switch careers. This is often challenging when it's not a matter of choice.

"Changing one’s identity can be a difficult process. Social connections are severed and you lose a sense of yourself as a competent and capable person. Having a strong support system is extremely important,” Elovainio stresses.

When paper mills were closed down, employees were encouraged to get an education within the social care sector. Very few took this route, which does not surprise the researcher:

“Gender roles and professional identity affect our choices, and these two fields are rather far apart. People usually gravitate towards careers that suit their personalities.”

Tightening the purse strings on adult education is something that Elovainio considers a bad idea. By doing so, a good and affordable way to support career changes and solve systemic issues in working life is lost.

No to uncertainty

The meaningfulness of work and self-fulfilment are widely discussed in the media. Elovainio doubts whether the pursuit of these goals has increased. It rather feels like students today tend to be more security-oriented compared to their peers two decades ago.

"An uncertain future feeds into the idea of playing it safe."

The very least we need is an illusion that we are in control of our own lives. Lingering uncertainty is detrimental for your health.

"We shouldn't just throw in the towel and accept increasing uncertainty like it is some law of nature. Let's not allow working life to turn into that; it does no-one any good."


The article was published in Yliopisto magazine 9/2023 in Finnish. It was translated by the following English undergraduates: Aino Ahola, Anni Auranen, Oliver Ekblad, Meri Kangas-Kärki, Leena Karhinen, Maija Keskisaari, Marie Kirkkola, Astrid Lehto, Sanna Outinen, Aino Parviainen, Säde Pehkonen, Oskari Saari, Joonas Salomäki, Anna Savolainen, Hertta Törrönen, Iina Vahvaselkä and Ada Valkonen, under the supervision of John Calton, lecturer in English, University of Helsinki.