The Meaning of Work

Consider the difference between a "job" and "work." A job is what you do to support your physical and financial needs. Work is what provides you with emotional, intellectual and spiritual satisfaction. Meaningful work is the fusion of both concepts.

The Meaning of Work

Beliefs about the meaning of work have changed over the centuries. The ancient Hebrew scriptures viewed work both as punishment for moral disobedience and as a positive act of redemption. The emergence of the Protestant Work Ethic supported the belief that human labour is the will of God and positioned the industrious worker as God's true servant.

The Protestant Work Ethic also planted the idea that idleness is a breeding ground for sin. We might ask how this idea continues to contribute to the sense of shame some people experience when they are not actively engaged in work.

In recent times and from a more secular viewpoint, the value of work has been more about the pursuit of money and as a means for building up material possessions. It's also important to consider that this experience can be different for people of differing socio-economic classes. People living in poverty are perhaps more likely to be driven by economic necessity or basic survival needs. The middle class may be driven more by achievement and the need to accumulate possessions, and the wealthy may be more inclined to value work as a connection for political and social purposes as well as financial.

Regardless of one's status in society, it's important to understand that psychologically, work is necessary for healthy development. Work influences a person's broader life experience, providing a way to enjoy a sense of belonging and contributing to a general belief that the things we do are important. Work can be further examined psychologically using the following dimensions:

1) the extent to which the person's self-image is connected to their work,
2) the extent to which achievement affects self-esteem,
3) the extent to which accomplishments remain consistent with one's self-concept, and  

4) the extent to which work is a vital life interest.

Work is also a social experience for many people. In addition to providing an opportunity to experience satisfaction from task completion and perhaps significant accomplishments, work provides an opportunity for affiliation and meaningful relationships.

The psychological, social and economic value of work can lead to a person's self-worth becoming so inextricably bound up with their employment status that people who lose their jobs may go through several phases - shock or disbelief, anger, depression and hope - similar to the stages of death and dying. When people stop working for whatever reason, they not only lose one of their most important means for connection, but also a significant part of their identity as a person.

The inherent need to work is part of who we are as human beings. The satisfaction of this need increases substantially when we are able to live out our life's purpose through our work.

Living our lives with a sense of purpose is healthy from all perspectives: psychologically, spiritually intellectually and physically. When we are purposefully engaged, we feel fully alive.

Consider how your work has contributed, or continues to contribute, to your life's purpose.

Take good care of yourself,

        Kathleen Johnston



The Reinvention of Work by Matthew Fox,
The author shares his vision of a world where the personal and professional are
celebrated in harmony and where the self is not sacrificed for a job but is sanctified
by authentic work.