Work doesn't need to be a necessary evil.

Transform Your Work From Miserable to Meaningful

The Meaning of Work Part 1

By Andrea Jacques
In October 6, 2017

Most people look forward to summer vacation precisely because they can forget about work. I, however, find that being away from work provides a great opportunity to gain some perspective on it —and develop strategies to make it more productive and fulfilling. Work is a huge part of most adults’ lives, taking up roughly 90,000 hours over a lifetime. For some people, work is a bountiful source of joy, but for most, it is a source of stress, disappointment and misery. The numbers bear this out: according to the Gallup State of the Global Workplace Report, only 13% of employees worldwide are fully engaged in their work.

The path to transform work from a stupefying power-drain to a key source of energy begins with understanding how you think about work. Let’s start with a closer look at the words we use to describe work.

What is Work?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines work as “sustained physical or mental effort exerted to overcome obstacles and achieve an objective or result.” This is fairly neutral (or even positive) in connotation, but many of the other words we use to speak of work are much more negative. These words reflect our mindset about work and hence determine what we get from it (both the benefits and the limitations).

The idea that work is a necessary evil, for example, contains not only the belief that work is never going to be fun but also that there is nothing that you can do about it. This perpetuates a miserable cycle: resigning yourself to the “necessary evil” of work guarantees that it will become even more of an “evil” over time. Just like the famous learned helplessness experiments Martin Seligman conducted with dogs in the sixties, your belief that your pain is inescapable leads you to stay in a painful situation even after the barriers to leaving it have been removed.

Over the few articles, I will explore some of the most common words we use to think and talk about work in our lives and examine how each word carries with it a different mindset that influences our abilities to reach the levels of performance, fulfillment and success we desire.

What is a Job?

The English word “job” is defined as “a piece of work; especially: a small miscellaneous piece of work undertaken on order at a stated rate.” Seeing your work as “just a job” carries several implications that do not suggest a positive place for work in your life. In this definition, work is pieced out at random on the order of someone else and at a rate dictated by them; you have little control over what the work is; and you have no idea how your work fits into the big picture of what might be happening in your company.

This understanding of work was born in the Industrial Age, when assembly line work was given out in small miscellaneous pieces. In that context, workers had no need to understand how everything fit together. Their job was to work only as one part of a larger process. A great deal of research has since proven this approach to be not just depressing but also ineffective. Performance, even on assembly lines, improves dramatically when people understand and care about the big picture. This understanding is even more crucial for performance, profitability and fulfillment as work becomes more and more reliant on skills such as creativity, analysis, and judgment as opposed to simple physical exertion. As technology advances, jobs that require pure exertion are quickly being automated, so the future of work for human beings is going to center around jobs that require this type of higher level thinking. With this in mind, even if you don’t believe that you should want more from work than a paycheque, and are willing to accept as unshakeable status quo the drudgery that comes with the “work as job” mindset, seeing work in this way is not likely to pave the way for a secure future in the emerging world of work.

The Good News About Work

The good news is that you just might have more control than you think. Here are a few ideas to help you shift yourself out of the “work as job” mindset and into a place where you can create more meaning, fulfillment and impact in your work:

  • Get involved outside of your current role. Volunteer to join (or even form) a committee to effect positive change in your workplace that will benefit not only you, but other employees and the business as a whole.
  • Make an effort to understand the big picture. Read your company’s annual report, their website, and their promotional materials to remind yourself of what the company is about — or at least understand the brand promise they are attempting to deliver on. Ask your supervisor if you don’t understand where your role fits into the big picture.
  • Expand your knowledge and skills. Read books on business, technology, systems thinking, your specific industry, or anything else that will help you elevate your understanding from “cog in the machine” to informed participant.
  • Above all, challenge the assumption that you don’t have the right or the ability to step beyond your role. These actions might be met with resistance, but if you persist in making attempts to contribute at a more complex level, you will likely be positively surprised by the outcome.

If your actions don’t get results — and you realize that you aren’t content to just have a job — it might be time to start looking for other options if you want to get something more from your work. Sometimes the problem isn’t you, and you won’t be able to fix it. It might be that the work you do is a poor fit for your talents and passions, or it might be that the leadership at your work also believes that work is a necessary evil — and has no intention of improving it. If you want to try to impact your bosses, we’ve written extensively about key mindset shifts for transforming work and workplaces for leaders on Kyosei Consulting. As a last ditch effort you might try to find a way to subtly direct your stubborn leaders there, but at a certain point you need to recognize that “breaking up” with your current employer may be the only way you can move on to a more meaningful relationship with your work.

This is the first in a 5-part series on the Meaning of Work. Check back over the coming months to learn more about the different mindsets that influence your performance and fulfillment at work.