[Mandala by Clare Goodwin]

The Theft of Meaning
Using the Concept of Meaning to Understand Work Abuse
by Adrian Longstaffe

Over the past few years I have become drawn to working in the area of what I term "work abuse". I am in my final year of a Psychosynthesis professional training and I have chosen for my dissertation (and for a presentation that I have to give with a colleague), the area of the Psychosynthesis concept of meaning and purpose and whether it could be used to understand and heal some of the demoralisation and stress that many people experience in our western work culture. If this area is as important as my intuition leads me to believe, I should also like to work towards the publication of a book on this probably several years down the line.

I set out some preliminary thoughts and questions below. I would appreciate being pointed towards relevant literature and case studies (especially the personal experience of members of this list) and even video clips illustrating relevant points that I could use in my presentation. Finally, your thoughts and comments on the material below would be greatly valued.

The Theft of Meaning

I have had a number of exciting careers in my life so far veterinarian, pathologist, university teacher, choreographer, dance teacher, academic manager, learning technologist, instructional designer, trainee therapist. Despite this, I have often felt vulnerable either to those who would devalue my work, or exploitation by those who knew how important my work was to me. I have a feeling that, had I been able to develop emotional skills earlier in my life and an understanding of the relationship of meaning to career and vocation I could have been more present and committed in my work and less of a victim. This would have meant a better all-round experience of life.

In addition to this, I feel strongly that our current Western culture of work is intrinsically abusive in its objectification and exploitation of its so-called "human resources". The very use of the term is significant. I also cannot help but feel that a demoralised workforce is less likely to make a profit for shareholders or improve the economy than a motivated workforce in which creative individuals can find meaning in their work. If this is true, then it means that we can and should be working alongside the employers and the leaders of industry because in fact we will be working towards the same set of objectives. This non-confrontational approach should help the creation of policies, attitudes and environments which are supportive of meaning and motivation but which also recognise the dangers of workaholism and work obsession.

It is my experience that much of the pain, dissatisfaction, demoralisation and damage that I and others have suffered in association with work or career has to do with lack or loss of meaning.

Meaning can be lost or stolen in many ways. These can include the poor manager who says or implies "what you do isn't very valuable anyway," the absence of support, mentoring or training to enable the acquisition of work skills in order to job better, lack of or withdrawal of funding in the public sector, sudden changes of policy or management in the private sector, downsizing, dishonesty in terms of expectations, demands to do more for less etc. etc. The list could go on. On top of this, many jobs by their very nature are difficult to invest with meaning except that contained within the pay packet.

The generic question which I'm setting out to ask is as follows:

Psychosynthesis is a therapeutic paradigm which places great stress on meaning. Given the apparent importance of meaning in many forms of "work abuse", how might it be possible, using Psychosynthesis techniques, to support and heal clients who find themselves in apparently abusive and meaningless work situations? Additionally, how might be possible for people to find or invest meaning in the apparently meaningless and to defend this against the forces which might erode it?

Specific questions which fall out of this might be:

  • How many people who feel dissatisfied or stressed or demoralised in their work associate this with lack of meaning?
  • Can Psychosynthesis be used to develop a sense of meaning when this has been lost or when the work appears to be intrinsically meaningless?
  • Can Psychosynthesis be used to empower people who feel attacked or exploited in terms of work or career meaning?
  • Who assigns meaning?
  • How do we take on or create meaning?
  • Is it possible to make meaning out of something which appears meaningless?
  • How do I find meaning and be sure that it is mine?
  • How can we discover our true purpose and then align it with the willingness of our culture to reward us financially?
  • What is the relationship between workaholism and the need for meaning?
  • How can I resolve the conflict between my need for meaning and the exploitation to which this seems to lead?

Adrian welcomes feedback and further thoughts. He can be reached at adrian@interactive-consultancies.co.uk.

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