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The meaning of work

In the same way that every human being is unique, the meaning they will give to their work is very individual. Many times, we are not really aware of what our job means to us until something changes. Jobs starting or ending can be major life transitions that bring up a variety of feelings. And even if we just try to keep things as they are, it is very easy for our working life to get out of balance. This is made all the more difficult by the fact that work can have both a positive and a negative impact on us. However, the more we are aware of what our work means to us, the more we can notice when things are starting to go wrong and the better we are able to respond to any changes. In particular, there are a few key meanings of work that are important to keep in mind.

First and foremost, there is of course the economic reality that we all need money to satisfy our basic human needs. This can already become a major issue, especially for single parents and families on low income. They are often struggling to make ends meet and suffering from physical exhaustion by trying to juggle work and childcare. Besides worrying about the money, there can be the guilt of not spending enough time with the kids. And rather than looking for a fulfilling job, it's often just about finding a job that fits around the children. In those situations, it can seem impossible to take time out and reflect upon one's situation, although it would sometimes be so badly needed.

Even if work isn't tied up with existential questions, it is often linked to one's standing in society and the balance of power in the couple relationship. A well-paid job can afford a certain standard of living, and sometimes the long hours spent at work are made acceptable by the material comfort provided to the family. This can create an expectation that adds to the strains of a challenging job, especially in times of uncertainty. A stimulating job can easily become too stressful when we feel we have to prove ourselves in the face of redundancies and budget cuts while carrying the financial burden of a mortgage and our children's education.

In addition to the financial and social aspects, work for most people is an important part of their identity. With such a significant part of our daily life being spent there, work for many is not only an occupation but a profession – a purpose, a direction in life. On the positive side, placing such an emotional meaning onto our work can make us very motivated. It can enable us to overcome stumbling blocks and difficult situations. However, it can also make us vulnerable to stress and depression. Especially, when we have high standards of ourselves, there is often no one there to tell us when to stop. And the more work we take on, the less time we have for friends and family until the job becomes everything.

Yet, not having any work at all can be equally problematic. People who are long term unemployed often describe how time doesn't seem to matter anymore without the structure and interaction that work provides. And the longer they live in this timeless space, the more it affects their confidence and belief in their own abilities. The loss of structure is also what frightens many people facing redundancy or retirement. How will we be able to fill the time? Conversely, people with depression or bereavement have sometimes found that work can help them to keep functioning. Even if it can feel incredibly hard to get up and go to work in the morning, they notice how it can give them a break from ruminating over the same questions. Equally, some new mothers may be longing to go back to work to balance the baby talk with some more grown-up conversations.

As such deciding on how much time and effort to invest into work remains a delicate balancing act and a very individual one. If you feel that you are struggling to find that balance and would like to explore what is keeping you from achieving it, counselling may be able to help.


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