Paradoxes of Meaningful Work: Rewards and Constraints of Care

Cindy Cain, Associate Professor, The University of Alabama at Birmingham
Event Date & Time
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This event was held on February 28, 2022. View the Zoom recording of this event online.

Associate Professor Cindy Cain will present, "Paradoxes of Meaningful Work: Rewards and Constraints of Care."

Care work is often assumed to be intrinsically and inherently meaningful. This assumption is built into social policies, workplace practices, and workers’ own interpretations of work experiences. Scholars have long critiqued this assumption, but have not adequately theorized what meaningful work actually means. When we leave meaningfulness of work unexamined, we miss an opportunity to learn from paradoxes that structure caring work. The first paradox is expectations for intrinsic rewards creates work conditions that strip opportunities for meaningful experiences, thus reducing intrinsic rewards. The second paradox is that quality of work is put in competition with quality of care, which undermines both. This presentation will first outline a book project that describes how care workers think about the meaningfulness of work, the limits to meaningfulness under common organizational and reimbursement policies, and the potential for improved work conditions. I will then use ethnographic data from a memory care unit in a nursing home to show how workers construct a sense of meaningfulness that is in tension with organizational policies and rewards. One potential path to improving the work of care is to reduce these tensions, align quality of work with quality of care, and recognize how organizational context affects how and whether workers find work to be meaningful.

About the Speaker

Professor Cain's sociological interests reflect two defining aspects of her life. First, she grew up in a rural area of Oregon in a multi-generational household. Growing up with farm animals, fresh food, distant neighbors, and a big family taught her a great deal about communities, families, informal care, and health care. She became especially interested in end-of-life care from her experiences with aging family members and their desire to keep care at home.

Second, she has had many jobs through the years: factory work, child and elder care, restaurant management, cell phone sales, and now teaching and research. Having these widely varying work experiences highlights commonalities between all types of work. Specifically, in each job it was clear that workers sought to create a sense of meaningfulness about the work. In her research and teaching, she examines how meaningfulness of health care work affects workers and is shaped by the organizational context.

The Sociology Workshop Series

The Sociology Workshop Series provides a forum for faculty and students to present work and work in progress across a wide range of substantive areas, theoretical perspectives, and research methodologies.

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