Finding Meaning At Work

Adrienne was a senior designer with a large advertising company in Toronto. She had been working there for eight years and at first, she enjoyed the work. But over the past year, she had lost some of her passion for it. She sought on-the-job coaching to regain her initial enthusiasm.

One night, Adrienne had a disturbing dream.

She recounted to her coach: “I was sitting by the ocean. I felt contented and at peace. For some reason though, I got up and started along a path leading up a nearby mountain. I felt compelled to go this direction even though I really wanted to return to the ocean.

“After a long time, I reached a plateau. I could go no further. On the plateau I saw a grave. I walked up to the tombstone and saw my name on it and an epitaph. It read: ‘Here lies Adrienne Thomas, who spent her life helping a bunch of really rich guys get richer.'”

The dream invoked panic in Adrienne about where her work life was headed.

No wonder: Finding meaning or purpose at work is crucial to an over-all sense of peace and well-being.

In his new book, Crossing the Unknown Sea, British author David Whyte, who now lives in Washington State, identifies our desire for our work to provide for loved ones, derive self esteem, contribute to something larger than ourselves and to feel recognized and appreciated. “These are immense necessities for every human being once there is food in the belly and on the table,” he said in a recent interview.

These needs are more than philosophical. In our practice, clients often ask themselves why they are doing what they are doing at their work in an attempt to find meaning and purpose on the job.

And since the tragic events of Sept. 11th, people are even more apt to question if they are fulfilled at work.

If the answer is “no”, workers may experience a lack of self-confidence and are at increased risk of burn-out or depression. A sense of meaningless at work can cause physical health to suffer, lowering immunity to disease, disrupting sleep and increasing the potential for heart attacks.

Organizations suffer too, when workers’ hearts aren’t in their jobs. These workers are less able to meet organizational needs for adaptability (capturing new markets), or speed (quick decision-making about direction), or creativity (creating new products or sales strategies), qualities essential to success in today’s uncertain business climate, says Whyte.

Drawing on his own stories as a marine zoologist, nature tour guide and poet, the author maintains workers can satisfy the need for meaning and resist being eroded by the work-a-day world through questioning their assumptions about themselves and their work.

Whyte asks dissatisfied workers to be curious about why they do the work they do. Workers can view themselves as mysterious strangers and ask themselves: “who is that mystery person going into work today, why do you like to do this work and (what tends to) make you unhappy in this work?”

Sometimes people make career decisions based on parental pressure (your father is a lawyer; you should be too), social pressure (medicine carries social respect) or the belief it’s “the right thing to do”. This method often ends up in disappointment. Whyte suggests workers identify where their career passions lie and take steps to find this in either their present jobs or in other employment.

Whyte questions the notion that job security is always good. “We have too much emphasis on work as a place of insulation, safety and shelter. People think, ” If I get this job I’ll get these health benefits, if I get this job I’ll be able to pay the mortgage, if I get this job I’ll be able to put my kids through college,” said Whyte.

He says while these concerns are legitimate, they can make workers feel trapped in positions they dislike. Some workers fearing uncertainty might miss opportunities for more fulfilling jobs.

Meaning can be found in any occupation, asserts Whyte, who himself was unemployed in Britain for a period.

He says that workers on the assembly line or people at the front end of the fast-food service industry often find meaning in their occupations. The only problem is, senior management sometimes fails to use these peoples’ intellects and imaginations. A hospital in Nashville, Tenn., for example, included all staff in caring for patients – not just nurses and doctors.

One janitor, for instance, heard a lonely patient whimpering in the night and sat with him until the man went back to sleep.

Organizations that encourage all their workers (not just the CEO and executives) to question why they are doing what they are doing as well as the organization’s usual way of operating are often the most successful, says Whyte. When workers approach attentive supervisors or managers with suggestions about better ways to get the job done, they can increase their job satisfaction.

Whyte acknowledges that doing the work one wants does not necessarily guarantee monetary success. “It’s a privilege to do work that you love,” he says. He is not impractical in his advice, however. If the work chosen doesn’t provide an adequate income for the essentials like food and shelter “that’s a way of telling you that what you have to offer isn’t useful enough.” Rethinking your goals may be necessary, he advises.

Questioning our assumptions can be frightening. Workers often won’t ask the big questions around their work because they’re afraid of the answer, Whyte says. But as workers come to grips with what they really want in their work lives, they are more apt to change how they work or even change occupations completely.

Back to Adrienne’s difficulties. In the end, she decided to radically alter the course of her life. She began exploring other options with her coach and realized that she had a great need to help less fortunate people instead of write ad copy. To both her family’s and co-workers surprise, she left her well paying corporate position to join an international aid organization. Family in tow, Adrienne embarked on a career in foreign aid in Africa. She says she’s happier than she’s ever been.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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