When a Job Is More than a Calling

Dreaming of doing work that helps others? These expert tips may help point you in the right direction. 

Posted in , Sep 29, 2021

A caregiver helping an aging man; Getty Images

How does your job serve you? Do you wish to serve others through the work you do, but find that you’ve been unable to? Are you unemployed but seeking a job that allows you to make a positive impact on others? In short, are you in search of employment that offers that elusive factor known as—meaning?

Satisfaction in the work you do is a big part of your emotional well-being. If your idea of job satisfaction includes serving others, but you’re not sure how to make that happen, a little guidance may be in order. To map out a few steps, Guideposts.org spoke with Seth Hayden, associate professor of counseling and clinical mental health program coordinator at Wake Forest University. Hayden, who is also past president of the National Career Development Association (NCDA), said the key is to keep your focus on what makes you tick, rather than on societal perceptions.

Q: There are various ways to find job satisfaction. One way is by feeling that your job is “meaningful.” What can make a job meaningful?

A: For some, they might find a job itself meaningful in terms of the nature of it and what it is that you do and who you serve. There’s also potential for the job that you do to provide for your family. It provides resources, and so there’s a sense of meaning to that. So, I really do think it’s individualized and personalized in terms of how one finds meaning in their work.

Q: How do you know if you have a calling to help others through your work?

A: Essentially, when you feel a personal and strong tie to your work—or a kind of alignment of values, skills and interests—one might conceptualize that as a calling of some kind.

[Research has linked a sense of calling to positive work and well-being outcomes, especially among people who are living their calling.]  

Q: Can meaningful work benefit the jobholder’s emotional well-being?

A: Certainly, there is a connection between career and mental health, which I think is important to consider. I do think that what happens in one’s career affects their overall well-being. Now, that doesn’t mean that it’s everything because one can feel satisfied in their work and they can have other things going on.

Q: What steps would you suggest someone take to find more meaningful work?

A: The term “meaningful work,” I think, is interesting because there is a societal conceptualization of what meaningful work is. With all that’s going on right now, there’s some societal perception of healthcare work being meaningful work. Whereas, I’m more interested in what meaning does one find in their work. That, to me, feels different. I would focus on what meaning do you find in your work, or do you not find meaning in your work? And let’s explore your interests, your values, your skills. What are the things you’re interested in, what do you gravitate towards, who are the people you look up to? I would look at that person and see what’s going on with their work, and if they’re not finding meaning, then let’s explore YOU and how it is that you see the world and the things that are important to you, how you spend your time and those kinds of things. Then determine what does that mean for us in terms of options within your current job or other options outside of your current job—because you can do the same job in two different places and have a much different experience.

Q: How so?

A: For instance, I’m a college professor. My experience as a college professor could be much different at another institution. So, I don’t always immediately go to, “Let’s find something else for you to do.” I don’t want to immediately presume that it’s time to switch jobs because it may or may not be. Let’s really explore you—kind of your current situation—and then see what’s going on to determine what would be the best thing to consider. You could advocate for changes in your current situation, where maybe you go to your superiors and ask for certain things. There could be things within your current position that could be modified to better suit what would be best for you.

Q: How does someone know if she or he has the calling and qualities to work as a paid caregiver, either in at-home or in a facility?

A: I do think that there’s a sense of valuing service for sure. I also think that there’s an element of kind of valuing social connectivity. Oftentimes, there’s some technical competence with providing that kind of skill. Empathy is another thing, an ability to be empathetic to those that you work with.

There’s a resource called O*NET, where people can explore careers and the skills, and so on, that typically would align with a particular career. So, if you search “personal care aides,” for example, it talks about the skills that are generally associated with that.

Q: What challenges do women with children face in finding this sort of job satisfaction?

A: There’s not a kind of equal sharing, and then also they get paid less for the same amount of work. There’s definitely a pay gap in gender. So, I do think that there are some unique circumstances for women in the workplace to have to navigate that. One of the areas of focus that I look at are military spouses. They could be male or female but typically, percentage-wise, many military spouses are female. As they navigate their career, it’s challenging sometimes to get a foothold because there are often moves within the military.  That can be the case in general, as well. As women start to have children, I think that there are some considerations that, frankly, males don’t always have to think about. I think there is kind of a move towards more of a balanced perspective in the workplace—paternal leaves, not just maternal leaves, that kind of thing. But I think there is much more work to be done as women are still having to account for things that men often do not replace.

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