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Is Work a Calling, a Misery or Something in Between?

Is Work a Calling, a Misery or Something in Between?

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By Dr. Bjorn Mercer
Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts, American Public University

We all work. We all have jobs. We all have worked for years or decades, and we have to work for decades to come.

With so much time at work, should our careers be a calling of some sort or is what we do to make money just an experience in misery? For most of us, it is somewhere in between.

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Jobs: Passion or Duty?

In a recent article in the New York Times, Firmin DeBrabander discussed if work should be a passion or a duty. Dr. DeBrabander discusses American productivity and if productivity allows people to be happy. He uses Seneca, the 1st century Roman stoic philosopher, to make a great point about work.

Dr. DeBrabander states, “We might begin by rejecting the notion that work should consume our lives, define and give meaning to them, and seeing it rather as an opportunity to fulfill something larger, namely our duty.” This is a great statement because for many American workers, the job they do is all-consuming. A job provides meaning to their lives, but this mentality can be very dangerous.

First of all, a job is just a job. A job is something we do that makes money for us to live.

Second, the job we do does provide meaning to our lives, but it does not have to define our lives. If we make our living writing, great. If we make our living digging huge holes, great.

The problem with a job consuming us or defining us is that one day we might walk into the office and bam, we get laid off.

Work-Related Anxiety and Maintaining Mental Health

As stated in a Vox article, which used data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 21.9 million people were laid off in 2018, while around 41 million people quit. These are huge numbers.

There are many reasons why people quit work. But when you are laid off from your job, it is a major and stressful life experience. If you were not expecting to be fired and your job defines your life, getting laid off can be emotionally and financially devastating.

Anxiety and depression isn’t just related to working adults, either. From a recent Pew Survey of teenagers, anxiety and depression is a major point of concern. For example, 70% of teenagers view anxiety and depression as a major problem, more than bullying, alcohol, or poverty.

As the report states, “Concern about mental health cuts across gender, racial and socio-economic lines, with roughly equal shares of teens across demographic groups saying it is a significant issue in their community.” Consequently, teenagers who are preparing to go to college or are about to enter the workforce are worried about anxiety and depression.

In addition, in a recent Harris survey of workers, 61% of people ages 18 to 34 have layoff anxiety. This feeling lessens as people get older, but only becomes a smaller minority when people are 55+ and closer to retirement. From the same survey, most people who are ages 18 to 54 do not feel they are prepared for a layoff.

The chance of workers today getting laid off are pretty high. From a Monster survey, around 40% of the respondents had an employment gap because of getting laid off, and 60% of respondents had an employment gap of some sort in their careers. If you add this to depression and anxiety as teenagers and layoff anxiety in workers of any age, there is a lot of stress that goes along with one’s work life.

Is Work a Duty?

DeBrabande also discusses how work should be a duty. Typically, when we think of duty, we think of actions we have to do out of obligation.

Some actions are enjoyable, while some actions we just have to do. Most importantly, we work because it is a responsibility. The example that DeBrabande uses from Seneca is about a well-to-do Roman who wants glory and is unfulfilled in his job, while Seneca counters these sentiments and desires with duty.

If the Roman Seneca is talking to is focusing on glory to fulfill him, he is seeking an external stimulus to make him happy. While external stimuli make us happy, the effect doesn’t last for long.

For example, let’s say you get a promotion. It may feel gratifying at first, but now you have to work longer hours and deal with more stress. So Seneca’s view of duty allows us to “devote ourselves instead to the job at hand — and recognize that we have many callings. There is not only one path to fulfillment, but many.” 

Work Is Somewhere between a Calling and a Duty

Figuring out how we approach and think about work is important, because we all have many callings. There are many things we find fulfilling, and we will have several different jobs throughout our lives.

Work does not have to be a calling or a misery; for most of us, it is somewhere in between the two. If you throw in the challenges of mental health, anxiety, and depression in relation to jobs, then viewing work as a duty becomes even more relevant.

If anxiety and depression are huge issues when we are teenagers, then those feelings become anxiety about getting laid off as a young worker. That same feeling then transforms into being unprepared for layoffs when we get older…the feeling potentially never ends.

If we view work as a duty, this does not have to be a narrow, utilitarian view, but a holistic, practical approach. Viewing work as a duty would allow all us to focus on practical mental health, and we would not have to feel the pressure to be “all in.”

It is important for all of us to find a balance between dealing with anxiety and being flexible in our approach to work. There are many ways to find happiness in life; we can find happiness in everything we do, including our jobs.

About the Author

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. He writes about leadership, management and why the humanities and liberal arts are critical to career success. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music.

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