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The Value of Work

“Never quit in the middle of a job – always finish what you started.”

~My Dad

So the Labor Day Holiday was this week in the US and it’s a holiday which was established to honor working people and labor unions many decades ago. I think most people tend to think of the holiday now as a way to realize summer is about over and fall is quickly on the way with kids back in school and football back in season.

I think of Labor Day as a reminder of the work ethic I was raised in and what values were instilled in me in very early childhood by both my mother and father. Work when I was a child involved learning what different hardware tools were and how to do home repairs or even home improvements. I wasn’t allowed to play with friends on weekends until “the work was done” which meant until my father was satisfied that whatever we had started was completed.

Work projects also meant putting every tool back where it belonged because as he taught me, we “have a place for everything and we put everything in it’s place.” He even had a shadow board in the basement above his workbench so he could instantly see if a tool had been left out. Tools were also always cleaned and sometimes oiled lightly before they were put back. My father said one of the most annoying things in life was needing a tool or knowing you had one and not being able to find it and find it in good working order.

By the age of twelve I was not only cutting the grass at our house, but I had gone around our neighborhood and hired myself out to neighbors to let me cut their lawns for five dollars apiece. By the time we later moved from that neighborhood three years later, I had about twenty lawns I cut and two lawn mowers I had purchased with my own earnings to keep my little landscaping enterprise in business.

I’ve worked hard ever since and along the way in my career I once had a notion to retire by the time I was 62, which later changed to 67, then 72, and presently I plan to work until I’m 77, provided my mind and body hold out. Friends and family sometimes ask how do I do it or why do I do it, and I typically answer “because I get to” and I mean that, because I’m thankful to truly only work in ways I want to and in ways that I enjoy and bring meaning and purpose to my life.

I’ve come to realize along the way that while work is just work and it shouldn’t define who I am, it is also intertwined with my view of the world, how I see my place in it, and how the way I go about it makes me feel about myself and those around me. Work provides the means to earn a living, make ends meet, or sometimes to help build wealth, but work is more than just a means to an economic end. Work is a conduit through which we can explore numerous psychological and emotional benefits that enrich our mental health.

One of the key aspects of work that contributes to mental health is structure. The presence of a routine, complete with deadlines and obligations, fills our days with a sense of purpose. This orderliness can be a stabilizing factor, offering a counterpoint to any external or internal chaos we may be experiencing. In psychotherapeutic terms, structure provides a framework upon which we can build a deeper understanding of ourselves, as well as foster resilience against stressors that come our way.

One of the primary functions of structure is that it imposes a form of temporal and spatial organization on our daily lives. When you consider the psychological impact of this, you recognize that a structured day acts almost like a container for our experiences, a framework that provides us with psychological boundaries. Within these boundaries, our minds find it easier to focus, and we're less likely to be consumed by anxiety or indecision that often accompanies limitless choices or open-ended time. In a way, structure and routine serve as an external manifestation of self-regulation, acting as scaffolding when our internal resources may be diminished or taxed.

Moreover, routine provides us with a set of known variables in a world that is inherently uncertain. The predictability it offers can serve as a counterbalance to life's complexities and unknowns, minimizing the cognitive load required to navigate through our days. This predictability not only frees mental resources but can also reduce stress levels, giving us a greater sense of control. Feeling in control is intrinsically linked with self-efficacy, which is our belief in their ability to meet challenges and accomplish tasks. When we feel competent, we are more likely to engage in activities that foster growth and well-being, creating a virtuous cycle that promotes mental health.

Routines can also be filled with meaningful activities that nourish our psychological state, things like exercise, reading, or even simple breathing exercises can satiate that part of our psyches. When these become integrated parts of our daily structure, they transition from being tasks requiring willpower to automatic behaviors that enrich our lives without much cognitive effort. It's almost akin to the therapeutic concept of "habit stacking," where beneficial behaviors are ingrained into daily life in a seamless manner. I’ve become a sworn disciple to my mother’s belief that “the day hasn’t really started until you take that first sip of hot coffee in the morning!”

So it's not just the big, impactful activities that matter. Even small routines like making your bed in the morning can instill a sense of accomplishment and order, setting a positive tone for the day ahead. I often encourage both my psychotherapy patients and my graduate students to consider routine as a valuable asset, as a series of conscious choices that can be curated to enhance mental wellness.

Engagement with meaningful routines and work also promotes what psychologists refer to as "flow"—that state of optimal experience where we lose ourselves in what we're doing. This heightened focus can alleviate the cognitive burden of anxieties and fears, as we're too absorbed in productive pursuits to ruminate. The flow state activates intrinsic motivation and offers a genuine sense of satisfaction, beyond external rewards like pay or recognition.

Social interactions at work offer another layer of mental health benefits. The workplace often serves as a community, albeit a complex one with its dynamics and politics. In this space, social skills are honed, friendships may form, and support networks are built. Interpersonal effectiveness is not only beneficial for career advancement but also fosters emotional intelligence—essential for managing stress, understanding oneself, and navigating relationships both within and outside the work environment.

Challenges are an inevitable part of work, but they also present opportunities for personal growth and emotional resilience. Overcoming obstacles, learning from failures, and celebrating successes can have a profound impact on our self-esteem and self-efficacy. These experiences are akin to what we discuss in therapy as adaptive coping mechanisms, where the challenges become a catalyst for growth rather than a source of debilitating stress.

Of course, we must acknowledge the potential downsides there can be with work like stress, burnout, and the blurring of work-life balance, especially in a world presently struggling to decide if remote work or traditional in the office work should prevail as the established practice for the future. Yet, these challenges offer another arena for applying adaptive coping strategies and stress management techniques. In essence, work becomes both the arena of our challenges and the crucible for our development.

So while there are a multitude of positive mental health benefits to working, having a job, a daily routine, a sense of purpose, and all the things that can go along with working, there is also great value and liberation in realizing that we are so much more than our jobs or occupations. There comes a day and time when we stop working and as Colin Powell once said, you don’t want your ego so tied to your job that when your job goes away your ego goes with it.

I’m thankful to have also learned that lesson early on in life, that no matter how much I might have liked a job, eventually the job, the boss, the location, the coworkers, one or all of those things would eventually change. It made me realize that while working hard and contributing my all is of great value and importance, it’s also still just a job, it’s only work, and it’s not what I plan to do forever. When the day comes that I turn off my computer and give up my desk and stop teaching and counseling, I want to have peace to know that I’m still me, and I have many other interests in life to fill up my time, give me routine, and provide that sense of satisfaction that I matter in the world at least for as long as I’m still in it.

You matter too, a lot, and I hope how you go about doing your job or your daily routine gives you a sense of that. Realizing that might help you go about that with a different level of intention or sincerity, to find the intrinsic values in things you may be overlooking sometimes. No matter how that goes though, it’s also always nice to have a day off, so I hope that included a long weekend or holiday for you, and it only comes around once a year :)

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