Is Work the New Religion, and are You Getting What You Need from It?
Michael DeVenney
November 1, 2021

In the past, religion played a greater part in our lives to build community, connect with people, find meaning, and make some sense of life. And then as the explosion of science shattered many of the concepts that served as the foundation of our beliefs, we were left spinning to find something else to bring us together.

We found work.

Our jobs took over more and more of our way of living, giving us roles and rules and a system of beliefs. Much of our community now revolves around work, the people we interact with and have as friends are found in our workplace. And work gives us a sense of meaning, or at least a focus for our energy and effort. We talk about the passion of our work, of finding purpose rather than vocation. We fixate on finding the work that makes us feel natural and authentic – and recognized. Work that creates value for us has become something of an ideal that we relentlessly pursue with the belief that if we capture it, we will be complete.  

But it feels like we are not getting closer to the ideal, even falling further behind. Our engagement in work has sagged over the past few decades, and the stress of working has increased with commuting, productivity pressures, and getting stuck in the silos of the company. We put our time in and wonder if it is worth it. Maybe we will find that holy grail of work that matters ahead. And yet, at the same time, we hold on to images of retirement providing freedom. We feel the conflict.

Research continues to show we are less happy despite working longer hours and having greater prosperity. Questions start to grow in our minds about our work, and the value of it. Is there a better way?

And then the pandemic hit, our lives have been turned upside down, and work shifted rapidly to a structure we never imagined possible. The pace of how we work changed, with more time for our family and ourselves, the relationships most important to the quality of our lives, and we have time to wonder if we want to go back to ‘normal’.

We face the question; is work working for us, and can it?

I think the answers are no, and yes.

From my own experience, work can become something that consumes our lives. Seeking value and a sense of self-worth, for many of us it comes through our work. The results we generate – our creativity, our persistence, and our decisions – become points of accomplishment providing self-esteem. Or that was my story. I dedicated almost thirty years to working long hours, fully committing myself to the work, and feeling like it was never enough. I always wanted more time to work so I could get to some point over the horizon where I was ‘caught up’. I had a party for my 50th birthday – not something I really wanted to celebrate although friends wanted it for me – and I had professional cleaners tidy up the house and one of them left a note that I have never forgotten. It was a thank you card with handwriting inside that said, “You got really nice stuff, man”. I sat down for a long time pondering that note. I felt like someone coming back from a vacation with a t-shirt having the slogan “I went to Disneyland and all I got was this lousy t-shirt”. All the time and energy I had put into my work had given me financial rewards – and stuff – and all I really got was depression. I was miserable and no amount of work was going to bring me out of the dark place I was sliding into. Work had forsaken me – I was lost, I dropped out anxious and mired in depression.

Maybe you are not where I was – possibly you are almost there – but it seems that work is not giving us what we want. When asked how they are feeling, most people respond, ‘busy, work is really busy’, offering proof that things are good for them. The burnout rate for people has gone up to more than 64% of those working, we are stressed and anxious about our work, who we work with, and whether it even matters. We need a change.

I am lucky that I worked through my depression with the opportunity to start another business. And this time I see work in a different way.

While moving through my depression, I studied how we worked. Part of me wanted to know I was not alone or weak, to know that others face these challenges – and they do. Along the way I uncovered three truths that I believe can change the way we work so it brings us what we are looking for.

For me, I think we focus on results and we do not appreciate the journey we are on together. Our expectations for the outcomes are always increasing. So, it becomes a vicious cycle - no matter what we achieve, it is never enough. We say it helps us to keep growing, but it also puts pressure on us for the wrong reasons to do more, work longer hours, and try to be better as we clearly are not there yet.

What makes it all worthwhile is the journey, and how we make it meaningful together. That is the fundamental shift and my three discoveries play from this thought – so foreign to me in my prior roles.

First, organizations are simply a group of people trying to make something happen. We need to remember we are people first and look at how we are working together, and if it is bringing out the best in us. We need to see beyond results to the impact we are providing to make a difference in the lives of others, so we feel it is worth it.

Second, the working environment affects how people feel about our work together, providing the dynamics and experience that support us to find meaning. Or does it create stress and distract us from contributing our unique talents, leaving us drained of energy and feeling unsafe to be ourselves. We can proactively shape that working environment for the better.

Finally, if the goal is to support people to work together at their best, why not ask them what would help them? Leaders spend so much time trying to figure out if people get it and how to help them get it, yet rarely ask those people what they think. Asking is so easy! And they will tell you genuinely and even feel more included and committed just through the conversation. Done right, we know exactly what we need to align around a shared future.

For me, I have this incredible working environment with a team where we are open, honest, and bring our best. We feel the shared pull of creating something that matters, and it means something to us and to others. I wish the same feeling for every organization - leaders and teams.

Work can bring us what we need from it, if we focus on the journey we are taking together and ensure the experience supports us to be confident and at our best – not anxious, stressed, and pressured to constantly strive for the next out-of-reach outcome. Ironically, if we put deliberate attention to shaping an environment that supports meaningful work, the results will be what we looked for anyway.

We have an opportunity right now, during an ongoing time of crisis, to step back and shape how we work so it means something, creating an inclusive experience that brings a sense of belonging for everyone, and framing an environment where people learn, grow, and feel part of something bigger.

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