Depression and the Loss of Connection To Meaningful Work

Johann Hari, author of Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions, was concerned about the extraordinary rise in the use of antidepressant drugs in America and the associated total focus on biological causes of depression.  He set about doing worldwide research on the social factors contributing to depression.  He was particularly interested in precursor events or situations that led to a person experiencing depression.  His research led him to identify nine social factors that were contributing to the alarming rise in the incidence of depression and suicide.  As the title of his book indicates, each of these social factors related to a “lost connection.”  He describes the first of these causal factors as “disconnection from meaningful work”.

Loss of connection to meaningful work

Johann’s research (and that of his colleagues) covered a range of people engaged in different kinds of work, usually at lower levels in organisations.  They found that certain job characteristics contributed to a loss of meaning for the worker.  This disconnection with meaningful work resonates with the Job Characteristics Model developed by Hackman and Oldham in the 1970s as a basis for the design of jobs that generated positive psychological states such as the experience of meaningfulness and personal responsibility.

Johann, drawing on his own research and that of his colleagues, identified several job characteristics in different contexts that contributed to the loss of connection to meaningful work and resulted in people experiencing depression:

  • Lack of control over work – research into the high incidence of suicide amongst staff investigating tax returns in the Taxation Office in Britain found that a key contributing factor was the lack of control over their work.  No matter how hard they worked, the pile of work kept growing and they could never get on top of it.  The ability to control the work environment and how work is done, known as “agency”, has been the subject of much research into what constitutes a psychologically healthy work environment.
  • Lack of feedback – in the previous research, another factor identified as contributing to psychological illness was the lack of feedback about performance of the job.  No matter how well or how poorly the work was done, there was no feedback received from supervisors or managers.  This led to a sense of the work and the worker being devalued.  The disconnection between effort and “reward” in terms of positive feedback contributed to people feeling “irrelevant” – they felt that they were not important or relevant to what the organisation valued.
  • Lack of discretion – research into the experience of depression amongst typists in a typing pool demonstrated that a causal factor of depression was the lack of the ability to make decisions affecting the work and the typists’ output.  The typists were totally disempowered because work was given to them with instructions on how it was to be done by people they did not know; they lacked understanding of what the documents involved or meant; demand was endless; and they were unable to speak to each other.  The work was thus experienced as meaningless and “soul-destroying”.  This research, along with other studies, highlighted the fact that people lower in organisations experience greater stress than those at higher levels who have a lot of responsibility because the latter have more discretion over what they do and how they do it.
  • Lack of ability to make a difference – the example given by Johann related to a worker in a paint shop who spent all day adding tint to base paint and using a machine to mix the contents to provide paint with the colour requested by a customer.  The repetitious nature of this task and the associated boredom contributed to the worker experiencing a lack of meaning because he did not make a real difference in people’s lives.  Hackman and Oldham had previously identified “significance” of a job as a key element for a psychologically satisfying job.  Associated with that was the degree to which a job provided what they termed “task variety” and “skill variety”.  Work without variation and with no perceived impact, can be experienced as mind-numbing and deadening and lead to depression.

The loss of connection to meaningful work can be addressed at two levels.  Organisations can develop greater awareness about what constitutes unhealthy work design and remedy deficiencies in the design of jobs.  Action learning interventions can be helpful in this regard and, in the process, build employee’s self-awareness and sense of agency.

Workers, too, can develop inner awareness about what in their work is impacting their mental health and causing depression. They can explore this awareness through meditation and reflection and identify ways to remedy the situation.  As they grow in mindfulness, they may be able to identify why they are procrastinating and not removing themselves from a harmful work situation.  Johann found, for example, that the worker in the paint shop really wanted to change jobs and had already identified what job would give more meaning and joy for him.  However, he was held back by his perceived need to achieve the external rewards of life – better income and a good car.  Through meditation and reflection, it is possible to become more acutely aware of the cost of “staying’ versus changing and to be able to cope with the vulnerability involved in changing jobs.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Bringing Intention to Your New Year Resolutions

Diana Winston offers a meditation podcast in which she provides a way to deepen intention when making New year resolutions. The meditation combines both reflection and goal setting and aims to replace the usual beginning-of-the -year wish list with a firm, focused intention on making a real change in your life.

Diana begins the meditation with a process for becoming grounded. In this meditation practice, she focuses first on a body scan that involves paying attention progressively to the points of contact of your body with the chair that you are sitting on and the floor you are touching with your feet. The body scan is followed by mindful breathing as a way to deepen your inner awareness – noticing your breathing, but not trying to control it. Diana suggests that the mindful breathing approach can be supplemented by paying attention to the sounds around you – without judgment or interpretation. Once you become anchored in either your breathing or through tuning into surrounding sounds, you can move onto the next stage of the meditation practice, reflection.

Reflecting on the past year

Diana proposes that a reflection on the past year should precede goal setting for the new year. The reflection has two parts – (1) what was good about the previous year and (2) what was not so good. In relation to the first – the good aspects – the idea is to focus on what brought you peace, joy or happiness. Here you can express gratitude for all that you experienced as good in your life.

In the second part, you can identify what was not so good in terms of what you did that impacted negatively on yourself or others. This begins the process of identifying what you want to change in your life. The not-so-good aspects may have resulted from not appreciating what was good in your life at the time or they may represent an unhealthy habit that has adverse effects on your life. Diana maintains that it is important at this stage of the meditation to treat yourself with loving kindness and not become absorbed in self-blame and self-denigration.

Bringing intention to your new year resolution

The final stage of the meditation practice is to focus on what you want to change in your life – choosing one thing that will have a significant effect on your life and those you interact with. Just building mindfulness through meditation practice itself impacts positively the people around you as you are better able to express loving kindness towards others and yourself.

The important point here is to focus on one thing or aspect of your behaviour that you want to change in your life. Too many resolutions dissipate energy and weaken intention. Focusing on one thing at a time builds intention and resolve.

Once you have a behavioural goal clearly in mind, a way to strengthen your intention is to envision what your life will be like when you achieve your behavioural goal – what will be happening differently?; what positive impacts will it have on your stress levels/ experience of equanimity?; and what will it mean for the quality of your relationships? The more you can focus on the envisioned positive outcomes, the stronger will be your intention and resolve to achieve your goal.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and developing our focused intention to create change in our lives, we can progressively remove the unhealthy habits that are negatively impacting our lives and those around us.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of TeamXris on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog. 

The Winds of Change

One day I was observing some trees in the adjacent yard move in response to wind gusts that swirled around the yard.

It was like a choreographed performance.  Some branches danced rhythmically, others moved chaotically and one tree had branches that swayed together slowly in time as if synchronised.

As I became aware of these movements in response to the winds of change, I was inspired to write the following poem:

Wind-blown trees

Dancing rhythmically

Chaotic movement

Swaying in unison

Different trees, different responses.

 

I was reminded of the different responses we have to change and the significant events that affect our lives, e.g.  job changes or job losses.

Sometimes, we move with the change in our lives and take it in our stride while at other times the change creates chaos for us.  If we have strong emotional support, we may be able to move with the change rather than resist its pressures.

When we have built up resilience through mindful practice, we are better able to withstand the impact of major changes in our lives.  We are able to more readily bounce back from changes that unsettle us and upset our equilibrium.

The movement of trees in the face of wind symbolises how we can respond to change in our lives.  We can welcome the change, be overcome by the chaos it can create or respond flexibly to its pressures.  As we grow in mindfulness and experience the winds of change in our lives, we are better able to develop an appropriate response.

When we are buffeted by the winds of change, mindfulness helps us to respond constructuvely rather than destructively.  It enables us to stay centred.