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Fit to Work, Work to Fit

By Fraser Dyer.

Work consultant and author. His book, "Why Do I Do This Every Day? Finding meaning in your work", is reviewed in this edition of Ministry Today. His website is at www.myworkinglife.com

In May 2005 the mental health charity MIND published the results of an investigation into why mental health problems have taken over from back pain as the number one reason British workers take sick leave. Anxiety, stress and depression are now all too prevalent in a climate where workers are struggling to cope with disappointing careers, and the cost to the British economy in lost output is an estimated £100 billion a year.

MIND's report should be welcomed for bringing into focus the necessity for employers to take their workers' needs more seriously, and for bringing recognition to the rapidly changing culture of work that is, at best, leaving people disaffected (and under-performing) and at worst seeking medical intervention and a sick note.

It should come as no surprise that people are faltering in their capacity to cope with longer working hours, diminished relationships with colleagues, eroded loyalty of employers, crumbling routes of career progression, a pensions crisis and the many other ills blighting the workplace. Other surveys point to the struggle workers have in balancing work commitments with life at home and other outside interests (including, presumably, Church). All of which suggests that anyone with pastoral responsibilities will not have to look far to find people seriously unhappy in their working life.

Yet offering the right form of support to today's workers can present its own challenges. There is a great deal of pride tied up in people's working lives, so they won't always easily admit that they are struggling to cope. And, of course, lots of us like to have a moan about our job from time to time, so how do you distinguish the normal everyday grumbles from indications that someone's working life might need urgent attention?

Taking Time to Listen

Only having openly listened to someone talk about their situation can you really gauge its seriousness. People sometimes talk lightly about their work problems in an attempt to mask their struggle to cope, or perhaps because they believe the fault is with them for not being strong or competent enough. In addition, some workers' disaffection may be more 'felt' than thought, meaning that they may initially struggle to articulate what is troubling them or the reasons behind their stress and anxiety. Having time and space with someone who can help them unpack their feelings and understand them, without proffering solutions every five minutes, can be really crucial. Workers don't always have sympathetic bosses to speak with, and family members often have a vested interest in encouraging them to stay in their current job, so there is a real pastoral opportunity to give people your time to help them make sense of their working lives.

Personal responsibility

It is crucial, though, that any discussion about work moves towards helping workers identify action steps that they can take for themselves. These should, ideally, be identified by them rather than suggested by others. In today's consumer-led culture employees may hope or expect their employer, or someone else, to solve their situation for them. While, in fact, resolution may require the action of others, there is a difference between a worker passively waiting for other people to sort things out for them and one who takes the initiative to drive change in their working life. Encouraging disaffected workers to take responsibility for their working lives is vital in empowering them to achieve a meaningful working life.

Some workers may be able to fix the problems with their current job by taking action that is within their control (such as cultivating particular habits around lifestyle or personal organisation), or by expressing certain needs to their colleagues, boss or spouse when support from them is required. Others, however, may require a change of job, or even a new career. It has become clear to me that a great many people have found themselves in jobs that are very different to those they started out in, or vary from their initial expectations, such has been the pace of change in the workplace over the last twenty-odd years. Others were talked into their careers by well-meaning parents or teachers, only to later discover that it was a bad 'fit.' Yet I'm constantly astonished by how long people will tolerate a work situation that they really struggle with.

It is not simply their need for an income that holds people back from making changes to their working life. Our workplace is one of the key social units that we belong to in a culture of dwindling community spirit. Workers may not like all of their colleagues, but they know them well and can often feel a strong sense of belonging. A person's current workplace also offers a familiarity that, even when they are extremely unhappy there, may feel more reassuring than facing up to a move into something unknown.

In my experience most people needing to change their job know, deep down, what they should do, but often talk themselves out of it. Many also seek the instant solution, vainly hoping to open the paper and find their dream job staring out at them. However, anyone pursuing a change of job or career needs to be prepared for, and supported in, a good deal of legwork in making that change. Ministers who find themselves listening to those who are disaffected at work can do three useful things:

Encourage people to take action: It is not enough to talk about it, though it can help workers make sense of their situation. But to be constructive the talk should translate into action. If people have notions about an alternative job or profession, they should be encouraged to explore them further, and to commit to a clear course of action.

Initiate investigations: Investigating alternatives is not the same as making a decision to leave one's job, so it can be useful to emphasise to people that by exploring other possibilities they are not committing themselves to anything, other than to become better informed about the options they face. This can be quite a relief for some people when it is pointed out to them, as it doesn't threaten their existing income or security, yet gets them out of feeling stuck in a rut. Many people's experience of work has been to make sudden jumps from one job to the next, often in response to a new opportunity that has opened up. They may not be used to taking their time to slowly investigate a career path in a more proactive way. This is especially true of people in their thirties and forties who are among the most dissatisfied at work, yet have perhaps not done any formal career planning for perhaps twenty years or so.

Challenge assumptions: People quickly throw up objections as to why they can't pursue a new job, profession or undertake new training. Among the most common are, 'It would mean a drop in salary,' or 'I'm too old,' or 'I can't afford to take time off for retraining.' While there may be some truth behind their concerns, such objections are often more presumptive than factual, so encouraging people to check their assumptions is good advice. For example, people often speak about their financial affairs as if they were set in stone, without necessarily having put together a budget, reviewed their expenditure or taken financial advice. One client told that me she couldn't afford to go to university and take the degree she dearly wanted to study, then later realised that the value of her house had appreciated so much she was sitting on nearly £200,000 of equity. She had never considered how she might restructure her financial affairs, and had simply assumed that giving up work to study was 'unaffordable.'

Spirituality and work

By giving people time to stop and think about their work situation, those in ministry can play a valuable role in supporting those who are disaffected with their careers. More than anything today's generation of workers want their jobs to have some inherent meaning for them. They are not satisfied with merely a tolerable nine-to-five existence that pays their mortgage, but want a working life that connects with their deeper understanding of themselves, their skills and qualities, and their place in the world. Finding meaningful work is part of their spiritual quest for wholeness and completion, bringing together everything they have to offer to fulfill a greater purpose. I can't think of a better way for clergy to fulfill their own vocation than helping others make that happen.

Ministry Today

You are reading Fit to Work, Work to Fit by Fraser Dyer, part of Issue 34 of Ministry Today, published in June 2005.

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