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A purpose

December 2, 2018
Amy H. Peterson - Staff Writer (apeterson@esthervillenews.net) , Estherville News

Editor's note: As the Estherville News continues its look into nine causes of depression and anxiety, local workforce pros talk about the role of meaningful work in mental wellness.

Most adults spend most of their waking hours at work. Researchers, including Michael Marmot, an Australian psychiatrist, theorize that how we feel about work can drive how we deal with the rest of our lives.

A local team of experts and helping professionals who deal each day with people who have barriers to education and work agree.

Article Photos

Melissa Lutat, Career Pathway Navigator for Iowa Lakes Community College, said, "Work brings a sense of belonging and pride. I've seen amazing transformations."

A few years ago (2011-2012), Gallup conducted the most detailed study ever carried out of how people across the world feel about their work.

After studying millions of workers from 142 countries, they found that 13 percent of us say we are "engaged" in our jobs, which means those polled said they were, "enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and contribute to their organization in a positive manner."

Most people, however, 63 percent, said they are "not engaged." The poll defined this as "sleepwalking through their workday, putting time, but not energy or passion, into their work."

The final quarter of workers polled said they were "actively disengaged" from work. Gallup said, "They are not just unhappy at work; they're busy acting out their unhappiness. Every day, these workers undermine what their co-workers who are engaged in their work accomplish. Actively disengaged workers are more or less out to damage their companies."

Kris Neider, educational counselor at Iowa Lakes Community College, said, "I think we're made to be in society, contributing. We were wired to want to end a day thinking, 'I've helped people. I've contributed.'"

Neider's thought coalesces with Jamie K. McCallum's experiment with a group of students. McCallum and his students hired 15 people to go to an empty field and dig holes. No skills were required other than being able to do manual labor in the cold at a predetermined time.

The students captured interviews with the workers on camera in a 15-minute video, which can be viewed here: vimeo.com/156967716

"Workers deserve to work with dignity; they deserve to be respected," one hole- digger said.

For several workers, shoveling dirt in an empty field reminded them of jobs they found socially useless, personally meaningless, or degrading.

Most new jobs being created are low-skill, low-wage and low-status. Only 27 percent of the 50 million new jobs the U.S. will add by 2022 will require a college degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

McCallum said more and more jobs look like digging holes to nowhere.

Neider said, "If you're in the dumps, it's good to be continuing to get out in the community."

Lutat works with SERT (Sustainable Energy Resources & Technology) students. "We work to keep them motivated. It matters if they did or did not complete an internship between the two years of their program. This causes us to see two different people: the person they were before the internship experience, and the person they are afterward. We do talk to them in the first year about, 'This is why you're learning these things, and this is how it will impact you.'"

Lutat continued, "When they have the experience of an internship, a light goes on and the second year seems to fly by compared to the first. The vision becomes reality."

Molly Giddings works out of Iowa Lakes Community College when she's in Estherville for the Iowa Department of Vocational Rehabilitation.

Giddings said, "I go into the high schools and talk about mental health. I teach kids they're here for a purpose. Many of the students with mental health issues have to overcome big steps for employment."

Giddings said she tells students they don't have to be who people think they are; they can choose to attend class every day, to show up for what they need to do.

Trudy Ahrens, TRIO director, said, "A job may be the first time some of the students we work with receive positive feedback from anyone. We tell students, 'I'm proud of you,' and for some it's the first time they've heard that. It's important that people are doing something that matters."

Neider said, "Starting a new job can be overwhelming. There's so much upside to work, though. If nothing else, you're learning a new skillset and that adds to what someone can contribute."

Marmot, the Australian psychiatrist, walked around the hospital wards and thought, "all this sickness and distress must tell us something about our society, and what we're doing wrong."

When Marmot tried to discuss this with the other doctors, they were incredulous and told him he was talking rubbish.

It's not possible for psychological distress to cause physical, or in most cases medical mental illnesses, they explained.

Marmot went on to London to research the effects of meaning in work on health and wellness. The British civil service seemed to be the perfect place. From neatly ordered desks, workers either moved up the hierarchy of bureaucracy in a linear manner, or, they didn't.

None was poor, or going home to a cold, moldy apartment, or in physical danger. Most people thought they knew that those at the highest levels, with more responsibility, more accountability for results, more people's lives in their hands, would have a greater amount of stress leading to more depression, anxiety, heart attacks, strokes, and other health issues.

Marmot and his team worked for years, interviewing nearly 18,000 civil servants.

What they found: people at the top of the civil service ladder were four times less likely to have a heart attack than people at the bottom. As a position in civil service rose, the chance of developing depression fell.

The short version of the finding is that the more control one had over their work, the less stress and distress one had. It worked when the team studied people at the same hierarchy level: those with more control over their work experienced less stress.

Depression and anxiety were partly rooted in a loss of control, in an increased amount of silencing, of burying one's own ideas, personality, one's entire self to survive.

Marmot discovered that when a person is required to shut themselves down inside to get through work, it affects a person's whole life. When work is deadening, Marmot said, a person "feels shattered at the end of the day, just shattered."

Feeling trapped was the cause, Marmot discovered, of more heart attacks, more strokes, more suicides than nearly anything else.

In the next installment of this series, we look at another possible cause of the increased incidences of depression and anxiety in the U.S.: disconnection from other people.

 
 
 

 

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