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What Work Means for Wellbeing

Of all the things that humans have constructed around us, few transcend barriers like work does. The vast majority of us go to work every week day (unless lucky enough to be wealthy or physically unable to do so). Our education systems are planned to serve it, we shape our lives around it, we often define ourselves by it - in fact, it’s the question we are most likely to ask someone we’ve just met: “And what do you do for a living?”

It’s so intrinsically linked to who we are that we can assess a person based on what they’ve chosen to do as an occupation. Think about it – it tells us about the type of persona that an individual might have, their interests, the skills they are likely to possess. It gives us a rough idea of how much they might earn, which in turn tells us where they might sit in the social strata. It provides a picture of the type of people they might be connected to, the format of their day to day life. This is because work is such a fundamental, vital, huge part of our lives that it is now woven into the definition of human.

There are many reasons that we work for most of our lives. The blindingly obvious one is money – without it, we can’t engage with society in a meaningful way. It’s a fundamental element of life, and unless you are born into a wealthy family, you will have to work in order to earn that money. And even wealthy families had to work to get their money, somewhere along the line! There is a societal expectation, a duty, that everyone who is able must work to fuel the economy, to ensure that nations function smoothly, to stop idleness and facilitate productivity.

However, putting money aside, people go to work for other reasons too. For some, it is a vocation, a calling that they can’t help but answer, and would do even if they weren’t paid for it. Some want to heal others by becoming a doctor or nurse, others want to nurture and inspire and so become teachers. Others have a passion that they turn into a job, and some do what they were taught to do by their parent or elders, perhaps continuing a family trade, or joining a community tradition like fishing or farming.

And yet – a large proportion of people dread work. They hate the thought of weekends finishing, clock-watch while sat at desks waiting for the day to end, and dream of holidays where they can escape work for two weeks. (Of course, this is not a universal experience, not everyone hates work – more on that later). If work is such an important, intertwined, inescapable aspect of life, why don’t people enjoy it more? What does work do to mental health that means people feel this way about it?

We’ve all heard the phrase “work to live, or live to work”, and this sums up why we often feel discontented with work. Many of us end up ‘living to work’ rather than ‘working to live’, meaning that we feel like we only exist to go to work, rather than doing a job in order to support ourselves and enjoy life. A few decades ago, work was hard and physical, but only for set hours – you clocked in, you clocked out, and then you could do as you wished. Digital progress and innovation mean that work has become an increasingly 24-hour event where we are expected to be on call at every hour of the day, and to work until the job is done – in some industries, there is virtually a badge of honour for working past contracted hours to prove how dedicated you are.

It is this feeling of never being able to switch off, of work pervading every area of our lives instead of being separate, that has contributed to our discontent with going to work. It feels demanding, relentless and thankless, and doesn’t afford us the time to ourselves, to properly nurture our souls and thrive as people. In a supposedly more free and liberal society than that of 50 years ago, we actually feel more trapped and overburdened.

So, now we return to that thought from earlier about the people who don’t hate work - in fact, they love it. What are they doing differently? More often than not, it’s because they organise and prioritise their lives in a more balanced way that permits them time to enjoy life as well as working. They don’t let work define them, and instead view it as part of their life that slots in with the rest, rather than their whole life that everything else has to fight for space with.

There are also people who know exactly what makes them happy, and they do that for a living. That is the utopia where work doesn’t feel like work because you’re doing what you love to do anyway. The reason most of us don’t find ourselves in this situation is because 1) it can be difficult to make your passion financially viable, and 2) society still requires people to do the jobs that need doing like waste collection, public transport drivers, lawyers, doctors, supermarket workers etc. Not everyone can spend their days making money out of their passion – which is where organising your life with as much balance as possible comes in!

We’ve put together some suggestions to help you do this:

  • Reduce working hours - this can be tricky, as employers may not be willing or able to allow this, or it may mean that you do not earn enough to support yourself, making it a non-viable option. But if it is possible to reduce the number of days a week that you work, or do part-time hours, then this might be a way of regaining some time outside of work

  • Maximise your time – if you can’t reduce your time spent working, then it’s key to make the most of the free time you do have. Create a schedule so that you can dedicate time to all the things you want to do. If you know what you’re going to do, it makes things far easier than trying to decide at the end of the working day when you’re exhausted

  • Squeeze more time – you might be able to eke a bit more non-work time out of your day by changing your habits. If you spend hours commuting, see if you can work from home a couple of days a week and use the time you save taking your children to the park? Or walk to work instead of driving to both get exercise and time outdoors? Or try combining after-work activities to optimise your time – instead of just going to the pub with friends, try doing something together, like a cooking class or play sport, so that you get your social fix and get to do your hobby at the same time.

  • Learn to love what you do – if you can’t reduce your time spent working, or change habits to get more free time, then try to embrace the work you do to make it more enjoyable. It won’t feel as much of a drain on your life if you enjoy it. If you simply can’t enjoy it, then think about re-training or changing career to something you would enjoy more.

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule, and some people thrive off the adrenaline they get from a high-stress, high-reward job and the sense of achievement and related successes that this brings. If this appeals to you and makes you happy, then there’s nothing wrong with pursuing it. However, be aware of the risk of burnout – too much stress can have a negative effect on mental health, and putting your whole focus on one area of life to the detriment of others can leave a feeling of dissatisfaction and regret.

It's also important to note that disliking work is different to enjoying the job you do, but hating where you work. Being over-worked, too stressed, or working with difficult or unpleasant colleagues can negatively and acutely impact your mental health. It can erode your self-esteem over time, leaving you feeling anxious, stressed or depressed. If this the case, then either try speaking to your HR team at work to see if they can offer support, or think about changing where you work. You don’t have to leave your industry or the career you spent years attaining, but see if you can find a similar job at a different company more suited to you.

None of us want to wake up one day and find that we wasted our life in the office when we could have been finding out who we really are, but nor do we want to look back and think that we didn’t achieve anything – if we can find as much as balance as we can, that’s the key to positive wellbeing and being able to reflect on our life with a smile.

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