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Psychology | Organizational Behaviour

How can we find meaning in our work when we must harm others?

For many workers, meaningfulness is a top priority. But what happens when our work requires us to harm others? We set out to learn from the experiences of veterinary workers whose day-to-day tasks often induce pain and distress as they diagnose and treat their animal patients. We found that how they anticipate, perform, and react to harm-doing can determine whether they experience meaningfulness, or frustration and burnout.


People experience their work as meaningful when it has a positive and personally significant purpose. Many of us also report caring more about doing meaningful work than about having supportive managers or even how much we are paid. One of the clearest sources of meaningfulness is having a positive impact on others, but a harsh reality of work is that it often requires us to do things that instead cause pain or distress. For example, managers must fire workers, nurses must restrain patients against their will, and professors must provide negative feedback to students. What are the prospects for experiencing meaningfulness when our work requires us to engage in these harm-inducing tasks?

In our study, published in the Journal of Management Studies, we chose the veterinary context to explore this question because these workers must frequently do tasks that animals experience as harmful, including cleaning wounds, giving vaccinations, and examining painful limbs. Most pet owners have at some point visited a veterinary clinic and will have seen how their pets can dread such visits. We interviewed and spent many hours observing workers in these clinics. We saw animals tremble, cry, or scream in response to some of the procedures they had to endure. We also occasionally heard workers lament feeling like they were “torturing” animals. Our research explains how workers could spend so much time doing harm and yet often express a strong sense of meaningfulness in their work.


One of our most important findings is the idea of “harm worthiness.” This is a personal judgment made by someone who is required to perform a harmful task where they ask: is the overall purpose of a task worth the harm it entails? If the answer to that question is “yes,” then doing the harm will not undermine the meaningfulness of that person’s work. For example, a procedure that causes pain in the moment but will save that animal from future suffering is likely to be seen as worthy. In contrast, there were also occasions where workers had to perform painful procedures that they felt would not make life any better for the animal. In those cases, the worthiness of harm came into question, and the meaningfulness of work was at risk of being undermined.

We also learned that different workers might assess the same tasks as having different levels of worthiness, depending on their personal values. For example, a worker who values helping animals above all else might be particularly bothered by a task that prolongs the life of an animal in pain. In contrast, another worker who primarily values the interests of owners might see keeping that same animal alive as worthy because it gives owners more time to prepare for its inevitable passing.


We found that when it comes to doing unworthy harm, the “how” rises to the forefront. We identified “harm remediation practices,” which were ways that workers responded to the strain of having to perform unworthy harm. Two practices were “mitigative”, meaning that they were intended to reduce the pain or distress experienced by another. Analgesic mitigation, such as giving painkillers, was a relatively simple and easy thing to do. Holistic mitigation, on the other hand, involved workers using their skill and experience to reduce animals’ experience of harm, such as by adjusting an examination technique. The other two practices were “transformative,” allowing workers to make up for the harm they caused by going above and beyond their job requirements. Compensative remediation involved workers giving something of value to the animals, like a cookie or a quick cuddle. Affiliative remediation focused on workers taking pains to repair their relationship with animals.

While one might expect that averting harm (such as through analgesic mitigation) would be the best thing for meaningful work, we learned it wasn’t that simple. Instead, the requirement to do harm created opportunities for workers to take actions that could ultimately heighten their experience of meaningfulness at work. The more that workers could successfully engage in holistic mitigation and transformative remediation, the more this was likely to happen. For example, a worker who was able to calm and reassure an animal to such an extent that a blood draw went by virtually unnoticed might experience this as highly meaningful. Similarly, workers who repeatedly spend time with an animal after a painful procedure, talking to, grooming, and holding them, could develop meaningful bonds. Importantly, the most complex, long, and repetitive harm-doing episodes create more space for these forms of remediation. When workers’ skills are up to par, and they are given resources and time to transform their relationship with animals, despite being more challenging, these episodes may be a boon to meaningfulness.


When workers are able to minimize the harm done during necessary tasks or to transform that harm into positive outcomes, an episode of harm-doing has the potential to heighten meaningfulness at work. For managers, this may mean mentoring workers so they can develop the capabilities necessary to successfully engage in remediation efforts, and to provide the resources and flexibility that are necessary to effectively remediate harm.

Another useful step is to understand that different workers will have different perspectives on whether a given task creates worthy or unworthy harm. Especially in situations where remediation is unlikely to be successful, assigning that task to workers who don’t see it as misaligned with the purpose of their work can save a lot of strain for all involved.

Finally, workers and managers involved in harm-doing should recognize the strains from this aspect of their work. It takes mental and often physical resources to minimize the amount of harm that one must inflict, and to then take the necessary steps to remediate that harm. We should all go easy on ourselves—and provide praise for others—when it comes to the difficult work of harm-doing, especially when it is done well.

This article is republished with permission from Journal of Management Studies blog. Read the original article.