Walking up Stairs

Why Do We go to Work?

What is the value of Work in our Lives?

Blogpost by Jienan Chen
With thanks to Kyle Driedger

September 20, 2022

            It is no secret that, here at OSP, we are obsessed with work. Every day we come to work with a goal to support jobseekers to find their right employment fit. We spend our days assessing skills and interests, working with individuals to determine their goals, teaching them how to best represent themselves and their capabilities, providing skill training, monitoring the job market, forging connections between jobseekers and employers, and more. However, we can spend so much of our time thinking about HOW to get people to their employment goals that sometimes we don’t think about WHY this is so important. What is it about work that motivates people to get up everyday?

            It is a valid question. Most people spend a third of their lives working; what remarkable dedication to an activity! The explanation should be simple: we work for money, which, as everyone knows, makes the world go round. But this is not quite accurate. To dig into this question, I analyzed several online articles on the subject, as well as answers from various people to the question. It seems that, broadly speaking, people go to work because they find satisfaction in it, the sources of which can be divided into five general categories: money, social interactions, tackling challenges, meaningful work, and identity-forming.

            Based on the management consultant Frederick Taylor’s work from the early 20th century, money motivates people to work…or does it? For most of us, the basic impetus to work IS in large part to receive money to cover our expenses. People need money so that they can pay bills, pay debts, buy groceries, purchase Netflix subscriptions (or not), etc. Ultimately, to quote a 2011 article by Amanda Mathee, “money provides basic motivation.” A 2018 CBC article suggests that certainly those who are in a “financial crisis” will work to this end, as well as those who plan on using the money for a future career—such as starting a business or going to school, or  some even “create income for a good cause”—like giving the money to a charity because they “no longer need the money.” (Unsurprisingly, examples of the latter are rare.) But once urgent financial considerations are taken care of, most people’s decision to go to work are shaped by intrinsic motivations—defined by Kendra Cherry to be “behavior that is driven by internal rewards… [arising] from within because it is naturally satisfying to you.”

            Some people work because they seek social engagement, which makes them feel happy. A 2018 study published in the Harvard Business Review found that workers who felt lonely were less satisfied with their jobs, and therefore more likely to quit them in the next six months. Human connection is such an essential part of positive mental health outcomes, that a 2020 MIT study on social deprivation found that humans crave social interaction as much as we crave food. Within the workplace, opportunities for groupwork or general socializing arise. Perhaps they occur infrequently in government work because the MIT study noted that workers in non-for-profit and for-profit firms are less lonely than government workers.

            Another reason why people work is because they like the day-to-day challenges that come with it. As entrepreneur Lior Ohayon put it, “work is about approaching a new set of problems each day, with a new set of solutions.” This may seem odd—after all, most of us would probably prefer not confronting challenges; however, according to Marcia Smith, challenges keep workers engaged in their roles. They make jobs more interesting, and, as psychologist Barry Schwartz explains, give employees opportunities to think outside the box and be creative. Overall, going to work becomes comparable to solving crossword or sudoku puzzles—something possibly to look forwards to. However, there is, of course, a limit to how much challenge we can take on. Some employers understand the motivating factor of challenges and thus, purposely set them for employees.  But an unrealistic amount will cause employees to feel less motivated to work. Therefore, setting achievable challenges should be something that both parties do together. It is important too that employees have the necessary training and support to accomplish their work.

            Schwartz also suggests that some people go to work because they find their job meaningful. From my research, I interpret this in two ways. The first is from what could be called an “internal mentality.” Take for instance an undergraduate marketing student who takes on a summer student marketing job. Among the many possible explanations for their decision, the most likely is that they desire to practice what they learned in post-secondary education and to acquire new skills in the workplace. Of the latter, these can be used to update their resume, which might land them another job some day, where all this practicing and learning repeats. In counterpoint, there is the “external mentality.” I am sure that it is not surprising that many people choose what they see as a meaningful job because their work contributes in some way to improving the world, such as bettering the lives of people living somewhere. Indeed, the entrepreneur Mike Falahee stated that “work means [to me] using your expertise to help others whether through a service or a product. I love what I do because I know I'm doing it to make others happy.” In this sense, depending on the person, both “mentalities” could exist in tandem.

“My work is at the center of my life; it’s how I know who I am. I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have it.” Anonymous

When a job is no longer simply about the paycheque, a worker can develop a strong relationship between their job and their sense of identity. Their dedication to work can come out of the deep satisfaction of bringing their personal values—religious or not—into their execution of their jobs. Or it can come out of a conviction that their job suits their skills so well, that doing it well almost becomes a part of who they are. And this personal connection deepens, through even such common social interactions as introductions. According to Kyle Driedger—my office neighbor, often when people introduce themselves, they include their job titles. Over time, the bond between their job title and their identity consolidates. Indeed, some individuals seek out jobs that dovetail with their preferred identity, for example, within high-prestige jobs, such as doctors or lawyers, or lifestyle statement jobs, such as a concert promoter or an artist. While this tie to identity can be individually fulfilling in a best-case scenario, the interruption to one’s sense of self is profound to some upon losing or shifting employment.

            This deep connection between employment and self is why OSP works so hard to determine a great fit for jobseekers looking for our support. We have recognized during our 40 years of providing services, that the best employment outcomes do not come out of simply matching up a jobseeker with a paycheque and calling it a day. Without connections to work that aligns with the skills, interests, needs and desires of the worker, the job placement will ultimately be unsuccessful. Not everyone goes to work with the same goals and the same needs, however, and a job that ideally suits one person may be crushing to a different individual. There are probably as many reasons to find meaning in work as there are colours in a Crayola crayon box, possibly more. At OSP we believe that, whether running a lemonade stand, painting houses, attending meetings, working construction, writing blogposts… there is a great employment fit for everyone.

If you or someone you know is struggling to find your great employment fit, contact OSP today! We offer many employment supports, including upskilling, job search assistance, resources, workshops, connections to employers and more! Contact us at programs@osp.ab.ca or call 780-784-7170.

For more information on the topics discussed in this post, consider checking the following resources:
















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