Meaningful Work at a Distance: A Case Study in a Hospital

Monika Müller, Christian Huber, Martin Messner

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review


Having a positive impact on other people's lives typically increases the likelihood of regarding one's work as meaningful. In some settings, however, employees have little or no contact to those who experience the impact of their work. Our paper examines how such distance affects these employees' construction of their work as meaningful. We present the findings of an in-depth case study of medical laboratory workers who do not typically interact with their patients. Drawing on interviews and observational data, we identify three sensemaking practices through which employees overcome the physical and perceived psychological distance to patients: assembling various pieces of information about the patient, sharing patient-related stories with colleagues, and relating themselves to patients and their medical problems. We also find that overcoming distance to patients can result in emotional stress, which is why some employees prefer staying at a ‘safe’ psychological distance. Our paper contributes to the meaningful work literature by examining how actors make work meaningful when they are physically distant from their object of work. We also contribute to a critical understanding of meaningful work by showing how efforts to render one's work more meaningful can intensify stress and emotional tension.
Original languageEnglish
JournalEuropean Management Journal
Issue number6
Pages (from-to)719-729
Number of pages11
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2019
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Epub ahead of print. Published online: 29. March 2019


  • Meaningful work
  • Distance
  • Sensemaking
  • Emotions
  • Case study

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