The Importance of Work

March 5, 2014
By Dave Hood

“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.” —Studs Terkel, winner of the Pulitzer

“Real success if finding you life work in the work you love.”—David McCullough

For fifty years, a man toils with his hands in construction, building skyscrapers and middle class life. At 64, he retires to a meagre pension and savings in a bungalow, unable to take trips to Florida each winter. Another man graduates from university with an MBA, works his way up the corporate ladder, becomes CEO, retires at 55 to a life of relaxation, sitting next to a swimming pool in California, playing a daily game of golf, traveling around the world. Though both of these men were part of the work force, their definition of work, relationship to work, and beliefs about the importance of work are radically different.

Definition of Work
Most ordinary people believe that work requires them to use mental or physical effort to complete one or more tasks. Usually, the person receives a wage, salary, or fixed sum of money for their efforts. There are many categories of work, including sales, marketing, customer service, teaching, medicine, engineering, and many more. Some work requires extensive training and education, such as a doctor or engineer. Other work, like waitress, bartending, garbage collector, can be learned on the job. In the capitalist economy, people can also work freelance, seasonal, contract, part-time, full-time. In a full-time job, the person works 35 to 40 hours a week, perhaps more. In part-time work, the person works 24 hours a week or less. Work contributes to a person’s happiness or misery. A person can be self-employed, working for themselves, such as a writer or artist. Or the person can work for someone else, such as a small business or corporation. Ideal work is a “labour of love.” This type of work enhances personal well-being, providing peace of mind, life satisfaction, and a sense of achievement. The worst kind of work is hellish, depressing, dehumanizing, menial, mindless, and boring.

Our Relationship to Work
People have different views of work. Work can be a “job,” career, calling, or a survival job. And if the person becomes unemployed, searching for their next job becomes a full-time effort.

For many people, work is a job. This job is a means to an end. The wage or salary or fixed some providers the person with the power to purchase food, shelter, clothing, and material possessions. Sometimes the person must enroll in a training program or university to learn the job. Sometimes the person learns “on the job,” how to carry out the duties, responsibilities, other tasks. Retail sales, delivery driver, plumber, electrician are examples of work as a “job.” This type of work tends not to be part the person’s identity—just a means to an ends. Instead, the person finds pleasure and enjoyment and meaning from leisure pursuits, such as participating on the hockey team, writing a novel, playing music on a piano, volunteering as a coach for the baseball team.

Some people are fortunate to work in a career. The person with a career has acquired marketable knowledge and skills at university. After obtaining employment, the person will often be mentored by some senior co-worker. A career provides prestige, status, upward mobility. The person’s social identity is often connected to their work. The work also offers recognition, promotion, and financial rewards. The person is often motivated to work long hours to achieve these trappings of success. Success is defined in terms of accomplishment, promotion, and income. Work that is a career includes Business Analyst, Nursing, Teaching, Law, Chartered Accountant, Doctor, or Engineer.

Work can also be a calling. The person desires to use his/her God-given abilities, talents, skills, in some type of intrinsically rewarding work, especially some social or religious cause. Traditionally, work as a calling was associated with a message from God, for instance, becoming a priest or nun. In the secular world of present day, people who view their work as a calling tend to be motivated by something other than a calling from God, such as cause or desire to use their talents. For example, the person might be motivated to paint landscape, direct a film, write a novel, learn to play a musical instrument and perform in the symphony. Work as a calling is fulfilling and rewarding. The person feels that work is a “labour of love.” The person is doing what he or enjoys, often working in a “dream job.” Usually, the person in a dream job has been able to combine a leisure pursuit with work.

Sometimes, people must search for other work. The job search becomes a full-time effort. Often the company downsizes workers when profits decrease. Other times, the person graduates from college, enters the workforce, begins searching for their first full-time employment. Anyone who is actively looking for work is “out of work.” This person is part of the unemployed, relying on savings or government assistance for an income. Searching for work is a full-time job, requiring the person to complete online searches, fill out online profiles and applications, send emails with resume attachments, attend interviews, complete training on how to write a resume, network with people who might be able to provide them with a job lead. Most people find searching for work a thankless task, which deflates their ego. Competition for the desired job is usually fierce. The person who is out of work doesn’t know when he or she will find their next job. This can be stressful and depressing. More often than not, the person will be rejected after completing an interview, and must spend many months searching for work. The average length of unemployment in Canada is more than six months.

Many people must work in a survival job. Often the unemployment benefits run out and the savings dwindle to the point where the person is unable to pay their rent or fill the refrigerator with food. And so, the person will work in a survival job, until work that matches his or her skills, knowledge, and expertise can be obtained. Working in a survival job has several benefits. First, it enables the person to pay the rent, make the car payment, put food on the table. Secondly, it is a boost of confidence for the person. Often any job is better than sitting at home, unemployed, feeling depressed, anxious about running out of money. Thirdly, work is a form of enhancing self-respect. Most people feel happier when working rather than unemployed. Fourthly, potential employers see that the person is motivated to work and not sitting at home, watching television and drinking beer. The biggest drawback with working in a survival job is that it prevents the underemployed person from looking for the right job. Secondly, wages paid for survival jobs tend to be lower than desirable work. For instance, the person might drive a truck, wait on tables, or work in a call center. Finally, survival jobs are dead end, with no future. That is why turnover is high in these types of jobs.

Importance of Work
The vast majority of people work to earn a living. They must work to survive. Work provides them with a hourly wage, or salary, or lump sum, to purchase the necessities of life, including food, clothing, shelter, as well as few material comforts, such as a portable music player, smartphone, and big screen television. They also work to collect health benefits, for example, dental, disability, prescription drugs.

Besides working to survive, people work for many other benefits. Most people are unaware that work builds structure into their lives. However, when people lose their jobs, they realize that work creates a schedule of routines. For instance, the person might wake up each morning to an alarm; shower, shave, brush their teeth, put on deodorant; dress in work clothes; prepare and drink morning coffee, eat breakfast; read the morning newspaper; travel to a place of work by car or public transit or foot; engaging in a set of duties, tasks, skills, responsibilities at work. The person knows that he or she must work a certain number of hours on specific days of the week. Time must be scheduled for work. Without work, the person has nothing to do, and must schedule every waking hour.

Work infuses life with meaning and purpose. Many people have a dream job, perhaps to become a doctor or teacher or artist. After graduating from university, they begin working, saving lives, helping others, teaching children, creating installation art, writing novels, and so forth. When you ask them, “What is the meaning and purpose of life?” Many people will answer, “to work in some career I love.” According to positive psychologists, work that is desirable, enjoyable, challenging, and rewarding, will increase a person’s level of well-being or happiness.

Work also connects a person to society. Instead of living an isolated and disconnected life at home, the person travels to work and interacts with other people. In the workplace, the person must talk and socialize with others, attend meetings, work as a member of a team. The person must communicate with others, sending and receive emails, talking on the telephone, answering voicemails. People in the workplace will often gossip at work, eat lunch with colleagues, and establish friendships with co-workers. Those unlucky people who lose their jobs often feel disconnected and isolated from society. They are forced to search for employment alone in their private spaces.

For most people, work provides a sense of accomplishment or achievement. Perhaps a sales representative achieves his sales targets, or a baseball player hits 50 homeruns, or a teacher successfully instructs children how to read and write, or a business analyst completes a project. This feeling of accomplishment boots self-esteem and well-being.

Work enables most people to achieve certain goals or results. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of “Flow,” work not only transforms the environment by building bridges across rivers and cultivating a barren plain; it also transforms the worker into a conscious goal-directed, skillful person.” According to positive psychologists, accomplishment is one of the pillars of increasing well-being. This sense of direction provides meaning and purpose. Accomplishing the goal usually enhances well-being and boosts our sense of competence.

Work defines a person`s self-concept and identity. Self-concept or identity refers to how a person views themselves, either positively or negatively. For many people, work answers the question: Who am I? Work boosts the ego, building self-esteem and confidence. Work can make a person feel proud of a job well-done. It can make a person feel as though he or she is doing something meaningful with their lives. When people lose their jobs from downsizing, they often lose their confidence and their purpose in life. They also lose their identity.

Many types of work will elevate a person’s happiness or well-being. According to positive psychologists, work is one of several methods in which a person can generate the “mental state of flow,” which will improve well-being. What is flow? It is mental and physical immersion in the task, resulting in a lost track of time. A person uses his/her knowledge, skill, and expertise will often feel a sense of flow when solving a problem, achieving some goal, or accomplishing a task. This feeling of flow increases a person’s level of happiness or well-being. Confucius said, “Choose a job you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” In other words, work is something that evokes an emotional state of bliss. Any person who loves their work is probably experiencing a sense of “flow” in their work.

Final Thoughts
Work is universal. All societies expect their citizens to work.

Work is a basic human need, much like food, shelter, clothing and water.

Work is important. The vast majority of civilization must work to earn an income, which is used to obtain food, shelter, clothing, material comforts, and peace of mind. For many people, work provides meaning and purpose to their lives. Without a job to go to each day, they live isolated, disconnected, empty lives. Most people become depressed when they lose their job. Work is their identity, their sense of “self.” After losing their work, they ask: Who am I without this career, this calling, this job?

For other people, especially the working poor, work is misery, mindless, drudgery, menial, repetitive, and physical effort. It is like digging up potatoes or stacking boxes on a shelf.

The stress of work can result in poor health. Some people escape the stress through intoxication— anti-depressants, vellum, booze, pot, other illicit drugs enable them to be escaping the mental anguish of work, feel pleasure or peace of mind again.

In countries that embrace the market economy and the spirit of capitalism, work provides a means of acquiring wealth, power, status, and material comforts, such as a palatial estate with 8 bathrooms, 12 bedrooms, and an Olympic size swimming pool.

Work can improve a person’s well-being or makes them feel miserable. The best work allows a person to use his or her knowledge, skills, and expertise. The best work enables the person to accomplish meaningful goals, such as a project. The best work provides the person with a sense of control over workflow. The best work gives the person a sense of autonomy—the person doesn’t feel as though he or she is being micro-managed by a meddling boss. Instead the person feels some freedom in the way they complete their work. The best work gives the person a good salary, which enables them to live the lifestyle they desire. The best work, such as a career or calling, elevates well-being or happiness.

I`ve always worked to enjoy my leisure time—reading books of fiction, poetry, personal essays; listening to jazz on the stereo system; watching a film at the cinema; taking photographs in urban Toronto; learning something interesting; sipping a beer while watching a baseball game on a sunny day. I`ve also worked to purchase a few essential material comforts, like an automobile, laptop, stereo system, digital camera, furniture, big screen television. In my opinion, most work is carried out for one reason: to prevent a person from living in poverty, which often results in a mental state of misery and hopelessness. Poverty will crush the human spirit.


About Dave Hood

Lover of poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction. Professional photographer and writer. Without the arts, life would be rather mundane, like a walk down the same old path on a dull day.
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