September 13, 2017
“I don’t think I can do my job anymore,” a client told me one day. “I just can’t take it anymore.”
It wasn’t that she hated her job, couldn’t do her job or had received poor feedback from her manager. “Annie” had become despondent at what she felt was the monotony of her work. Every day for the last seven years she had gotten out of bed and gone to her job as a patient care coordinator at a Seattle medical facility.
“It’s the same thing over and over, day after day. All my days seem to blend together into one boring blur of activity,” she said. “I feel like my life doesn’t have a purpose. Like I’m sleepwalking through my days at work.”
My heart went out to her because I had also experienced similar feelings about jobs at different points in my career. Each time this happened, I gravitated back to a book I had read at a young age, Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl.
In his memoir, psychiatrist Frankl recounts his experience and the experience of others in Nazi death camps. His belief is that the primary human drive is the quest for meaning in life, and that life has meaning in all circumstances, even in the face of tragic suffering.
Frankl’s theory is that there are three main ways to find that meaning in life:
1) By creating a work or doing a deed
2) By experiencing something or encountering someone
3) By the attitude we take in rising above difficult or hopeless situations to learn, grow and change ourselves for the better
After telling my client about Frankl’s book, she was excited to read it and wanted to try applying the techniques to her work situation.
Create a work or do a deed. Take a look at your skills, experience and areas of expertise. How could you use them to create something that will help others? This could be anything from leading a project to improving a process. It could be something done on the job or through volunteer work after hours or on weekends.
For Annie, she was great when it came to improving processes, so she began looking for ways she could streamline work processes to enhance patient experiences.
Experience something or encounter someone. Meaning in work can also be found through experiences, relationships and even chance meetings with others. If your work feels monotonous, what could you do that would force you to step outside of your comfort zone? What about relationships? Think about the people with whom you interact each day. How could those interactions help define the meaning in your work?
In thinking about what she did each day, Annie realized that it was the relationships she formed with each of her patients and their families that helped give her work meaning. On a daily basis, she was using her knowledge and skills to guide patients through the often difficult labyrinth of medical terms, doctor appointments and procedures. Her work had meaning because, every day, she was making a positive difference in the lives of her patients.
Change your attitude about difficult situations. Even if you feel like the victim of a hopeless situation, you can turn a personal tragedy into a triumph. Victor Frankl did this by using his experiences in concentration camps to write a book that would help others rise above their circumstances and thrive. In doing this, he found meaning in his own life and work.
While office work can’t be compared to the situations Frankl suffered, there can be work situations that make people feel like helpless victims – sexual harassment, verbal abuse by a boss, bullying by a coworker, to name just a few. No matter what your situation, how can you rise above it and not let it negatively impact your attitude? What can you learn from your situation or suffering that will help you (or others) in the future?
Annie hadn’t experienced any type of traumatic suffering in her job, but she saw the suffering of her patients as they battled to overcome various types of cancer, respiratory infections, cardiovascular disease, mental illnesses and the ravages of Lyme disease.
Seen in that light, her days no longer felt monotonous. Her work was no longer a boring blur of activity because every patient became special to her. In her mind, Annie became a protector, supporter and advocate for every patient she met, guiding them through the medical system with patience, kindness and love. Annie finally found the meaning in her work that she had been missing.