Can people who hate their job find meaning in their work?
This week I had the opportunity to go to an event put on by Leadership Journal called Redeeming Work. It was focused on the meaning and importance of our work as image bearers of God. Events like this one–focused on the idea of vocation (our call into every part of our lives, not just the ones we get paid for)–are becoming more prevalent. I have personally been deeply moved and shaped by these conversations in recent years. While this focus does not comprise the whole of the Christian life or the Gospel, it is an essential piece that has been too often ignored.
One of the questions that has been raised at nearly every event I’ve been a part of around this topic is whether this is a conversation of privilege that only applies to those who are able to choose their jobs and find themselves in a place of some influence. The question is framed in relation to two groups of people–those who hate their jobs and those who are in positions of relatively little influence. These two groups have some significant differences, but they often overlap.
So can people who hate their jobs and those who are in positions of relatively low influence find meaning in their work? There are reasons to think they can. (In sharing these reasons I also want to acknowledge up front that it is much easier to write about these on a blog than to actually find meaning.)
We are made to work.
Work is not something people were cursed with–it was part of the gift of being human. People are made in the image of God and at the very beginning of the Bible we are presented with a God who works. He brings all of reality into being. And then he gives humanity the work of cultivating and tending what has been made. Working is a fundamental aspect of what it means to be human. This work does not have to be paid. This work does not have to be chosen. And this work does not even need to be liked. Not working is destructive to the humanity and dignity of people–I’ve seen that firsthand.
All work benefits others–it contributes to the common good.
Other than work that is obviously destructive and sinful, all work benefits others.
Some jobs are more obviously beneficial than others. A doctor restores health to sick people. A teacher educates children, giving them hope for the future. But what about the man who sits in a cubicle and enters data day after day? What about the woman works in a call center fielding calls from angry customers? The importance of their work may seem easier to question than a doctor or a teacher. However, if you spend a little bit of time considering how their work impacts others it is not too difficult to see the value it adds to society. I am not advocating the distance that technology and cubicles can put between people, but they cannot negate the benefit that work provides to others–they don’t have that much power. The man who enters data is enabling the execution of projects that would not happen without him. The woman answering phones is finding ways to make things work the way they are meant to and has the opportunity to help people move from frustration to joy if she is willing. (The ability to see these things requires that we don’t make an exact correlation between meaning and happiness–I’ll touch on that more in a minute.)
We all have influence.
Some people and some professions have more influence on other people and the world than others. That is true. But this fact does not negate the influence of all people and professions on the world. Every person can influence the day of whomever they come across by the way they treat them. Each employee can seek to give feedback at some level, even if it seems small. Take Jim as an example. He was a friend from a previous church who spent his days pushing a grocery cart around to dumpsters, digging out metal, and then walking it over two miles to the recycling center. Not exactly a job bursting with opportunities for influence. But Jim regularly had stories of the lives he impacted along the way. Not to mention the significant amount of metal he kept from going to landfills over time. Jim believed he could influence things, even if it seemed small to others. We may wish for more influence believing we have none or we can steward whatever measure of influence we’ve been given.
Meaning and Happiness are Not the Same
Being happy about your work and finding meaning in it are not the same thing. It is possible to find meaning in something you do not enjoy. Finding meaning is likely to increase your level of enjoyment, but it is not a necessary correlation. If the question is “Can everyone love their job?” the answer might legitimately be no. But if the question is “Can everyone find meaning in their work?” I believe the answer is yes. (Again, excluding work that is inherently unethical or destructive.) Answering yes may be a long journey, and perhaps a slow one, but it is one worth taking.