Fyodor Dostoevsky once wrote that ‘deprived of meaningful work, men and women lose their reason for existence; they go stark raving mad’. I have to admit that I totally agree with Dostoevsky’s argument because meaning, along with fulfilment and satisfaction, gives value to your life and make it worth living.
While work is not the “be all or end all” of human existence, most of us have to spend enough time at it to make a positive or negative impact on our wellbeing.
If you are unlucky enough to be working a job just to pay the rent and to stay off welfare, you know how draining it is to operate in a role and environment that fails to bring you very little satisfaction or adds meaning to your life.
Linda R. Hirshman in her book entitled “Get to Work.... and get a life before its too late” (2009) argues that Western civilisation has been based on the idea that life’s ultimate goal is to be all that you can be by using your talents and capabilities to the fullest and being rewarded for it.
But some jobs are not designed to be fulfilling or use an individual's skills and abilities but are still needed for our society to function, for example Nursing Assistants, Garbage Collectors and Hotel/Office Cleaners.
Having spent a year as a Nursing Assistant, I am struggling to with find meaning from it.
Part of the role of an Assistant in Nursing is to sit there and watch patients who have dementia, delirium or some kind of alcohol or drug related “episode” which means that they are no longer grounded in reality. So Assistants have to sit there and make sure that they get to the toilet ok, don’t abscond or pull at their IV drips and/or catheter.
Being “on surveillance” as it is called, staff regularly feel the same mind numbing boredom that you get on a long haul flight except they are going nowhere fast. They often feel like a nagging mother repeating themselves again and again for 8 hours in a row.
How can just sitting there looking after the mad, bad and the sad be using people’s talents and capabilities to the fullest or can be defined as being satisfying or that it brings meaning to life?
Philosopher Alain du Britton, when writing about what people do all day, argues that meaning derives from helping people and seeing your work contributes to society. He writes ‘When does a job feel meaningful? Whenever it allows us to generate delight or reduce suffering in others’ (2010, 78). This should make working in a nursing related job more meaningful but somehow, in reality and from my humble experience, it is the opposite. This shows how the very concept of what constitutes “meaningful employment” is very difficult to define.
As a role, Nursing Assistants have no autonomy or control of what they do or when they do it - their existence is micromanaged. It is like being a pack horse in scrubs whose job it is to literally bring up the rear.
This notion of autonomy has a direct link to how satisfied you are with your job. There are countless articles and books that show how having an element of autonomy and accountability in your work can raise the levels of satisfaction as well as productivity.
Rick Nauert, for example, writes “Experts say that workers who believe they are free to make choices in the workplace — and be accountable for their decisions — are happier and more productive” (2011). So when looking for a role that would be remotely satisfying, (regardless what it would be) an element of autonomy would be what would make it meaningful and not something that would make you go stark raving mad.
While my current position as a Nursing Assistant satisfies my primordial work ethic, it lacks intellectual stimulation that adds to a satisfying position. Or maybe I am just burnt out!!
Maybe being an over qualified arts grad with no experience of economic value means that I'm destined for underemployment. Perhaps I'm one of those over-educated, hyper-opinionated Nursing Assistants who wiz around the ward trying to discuss Chinese diplomacy in Africa with patients, who keep on wishing I'd just shut up and clean up their faecal accident.
When the dementia and faecal accidents all get too much I just think of the money and that it pays the bills as well as that while its uncomfortable being in purgatory, it won’t last forever. It can’t!
List of References
De Botton, A. (2009) The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (London, Hamish Hamelton)
Hirshman, L.R. (2006) Get to work and a life before it is too late. (London, Pengin Books)
Nauert, R. Worker Autonomy Can Lead to Greater Productivity, Satisfaction. January 25, 2011.http://psychcentral.com/news/2011/01/25/worker-autonomy-can-lead-to-greater-productivity-satisfaction/22885.html Accessed 18 June 2012