In my clinical role I work with quite a few people who report being very stressed by work. They site a whole range of reasons for why work is a problem: work overload, ambiguity, lack of support or appreciation, insufficient financial reward, poor relationships with colleagues or managers, and a host of other reasons.
Many of the people who feel stressed by work are counting the days until they can retire, desperate to get over the line and collapse into a stress free world with no responsibility. But it’s not that simple. Some time ago I spoke to a GP friend of mine who told me that her waiting room was full of retired people presenting with a whole host of ailments both physical and psychological. As she eloquently phrased it “I’ve known most of these people for years and when they were working they didn’t have time to be ill. Their lives were full when they had their work and now those same lives look a lot emptier without it.”
Work provides us with at least 7 benefits – the Magnificent Seven, as I like to call them:
Salary – not only would our world be psychological poorer without work but very few people, even those with a healthy pension, will be as well off without their salary. As Woody Allen once said “I’d rather be rich than poor – if only for financial reasons.”
Structure – having a structure to your week helps us to make the most of our time. Without work then we are in danger of falling foul of a variant of Parkinson’s law – the adage that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Without actual work, then all the other domestic chores we are tasked with expand to fill all the available time we have when we are retired. Having work means we get the chores done more quickly!
Sense of Purpose – we all need to have meaning to our life. To quote Jim Collins, a leading writer and researcher on business and leadership (Built to Last; Good to Great; How the Mighty Fall; Great by Choice) “If you want to lead a meaningful life then you need to have meaningful work – even if it’s not paid.”
Social Contact – even if you don’t develop close relationships through work (though many people do!), work provides us with a rich supply of people with whom to swap banter and repartee on a daily basis. Through social contact we can also develop a shared sense of purpose which bonds and unites us in a cause with our co-workers.
Self-esteem – work gives us the opportunity to be appreciated by others, and this builds our self-esteem. Knowing that we have done a good job, that we have made a difference, makes us feel better about ourselves. Work can validate our belief in our own usefulness. It can even lead to Abraham Maslow’s concept of self-actualisation – the fulfilment of our talent and potential.
Switching attention – work can be a wonderful distraction from our troubles outside work. Work forces us to switch our attention; it makes us focus because we are being paid to do a job. This focus can provide a healthy ‘time-out’ from any stresses we have in our private life.
Self-righteous – when you’ve worked hard all week, justifiably, we enjoy our Sunday morning lie-in that much more. To quote the Bard in Henry IV Part 1 “If all the year were playing holidays; to sport would be as tedious as to work.” Work gives us permission to indulge ourselves – hey, we’ve earnt it!
So how do we square the circle: if work is making us stressed, but giving up work means we lose the Magnificent Seven what should we do?
In practical terms it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Many organisations see the value of keeping experienced employees on a part-time basis. Another option is dropping down a grade or two which can be really liberating – many people I’ve helped have seen the value of reverting to being a clinician and giving up their managerial grade. Sure, you’ll earn less money in the short-term but you might extend your working life for years and therefore earn more in the long-term.
Or what about taking a completely different job where the pay is significantly less but so are the stress levels? Remember the character Ken Barlow in Coronation Street who gave up the stress of teaching to work in a supermarket? Finally, if you are hell-bent on retirement then work for nothing, unpaid work provides six of the Magnificent Seven; but don’t stop working.
Retirement may look like the panacea to all your troubles but be careful what you wish for.