In working with people from different employment backgrounds, the topic of meaninglessness in work inevitably enters into the discussion. I have heard clients utter statements concerning meaninglessness numerous times in counseling sessions and have even uttered this myself on occasion. However, this is not to say that such statements should be taken lightly or without serious concern. There are countless reasons for saying these comments or assertions and they can reflect a sense of being lost or discouraged in how one contributes to a greater endeavor. This is yet another example of how “career” counseling can intersect with mental health work.
According to Yalom (1980) people must develop a sense of purpose in their life. This is one of the foundational tenants of existential theory and the theory applies to career work. Cohen (2003) wrote an excellent conceptualization of using existential theory in career decision making. Specifically, he mentioned the self-questioning that clients experience. Questions like; does this work provide me with an authentic expression of myself or does this work provide meaning to the world? In the throes of personal evaluation these types of questions can be difficult to answer and may lead to an increase in anxiety or exacerbate other mental health conditions. These types of reflections can also increase work dissatisfaction and cause clients to become stagnant and uncreative. However, there is another side to this experience: a side that counselors can bring to the session.
In the constructivist perspective, counselors look for the opportunities that exist in the client’s dilemma. Reflective questions such as “what is this dissatisfaction telling you” or “how could you tell if you were involved in meaningful work”, would be helpful responses to assist the client in exploring or re-authoring the experience. Part of the re-authoring might include helping a client find “spirit at work” (Kinjerski & Skrypnek, 2008 p. 319). Kinjerski & Skrypnek (2008) discussed the concept of “spirit at work”. They defined this as a sense of contributing to society, feeling good about the contribution, and having a sense of harmony with personal contribution. Helping clients become more self-affirming is an important focus of career counseling in the 21st century (Savickas, 1997). Focusing on the personal meaning of work and more importantly, the personal assessment of how work is rewarding is a good first step in this process.
A colleague talked with me recently about mountains of meaningless paperwork and the time it took away from his/her clients. Additionally, my colleague discussed the organizational environment, questioning if (s)he could survive for the next few months. I first asked “how have you survived thus far?” This colleague replied that hoping for change was the primary source of his/her survival. Yet, that hope of “external” organization change had expired. He/she was left without a way to cope with the feelings of meaninglessness and hopelessness in these circumstances. I knew that the colleague had made plans for a career change and that surviving the last few months was important. It was clear to me that survival was the goal. I mentioned that although survival was important, it was only a step in the thriving process. Suddenly, my colleague recognized that survival, previously thought to be arduous agony, was now a way to re-conceptualize a meaningless experience and realize a purpose in the next few months of work.
Counselors have used reframing and other techniques to assist clients undergoing difficult change. Understanding the meaning and suffering that we humans experience in and out of the work place is an important task. Helping clients take the suffering and re-story it into a meaningful endeavor is yet another way counselors can had a positive impact on client’s lives. This can have constructive and affirming affects for client’s work lives.
Kevin Stoltz is counselor and an assistant professor at The University of Mississippi. He specializes in career counseling and Adlerian Psychology and has a strong interest (no pun intended) in early recollections related to work life.