Janel Kragt Bakker, Associate Director of the Collegeville Institute, interviewed Matt Bloom about his research on well-being at work as Associate Professor at the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame.
Matt is a member of the Collegeville Institute Seminar on Vocation across the Lifespan. This interview took place during the Seminar’s 2013 meeting on the vocation of the elderly.
Your current research focuses on well-being at work, with particular concern for well-being in certain professions such as medicine and teaching. Why these professions?
Right now we’re focusing on what we call the helping professions. We have a broad definition that includes physicians, educators, and Head Start teachers in particular. We’re beginning to work with human rights and animal rights attorneys. Our initial interest was to try to understand individuals who engage in work out of a sense of calling. They may not use the term “calling,” but they have a sense of destiny or yearning.
This was something they were meant to do.
Meant to do, born to do, hard-wired to do—those are the kinds of phrases that they use. That led us to understand how for many of these people, central to the notion of a calling is a sense of service to others. So the first professions [we researched] were clergy and international humanitarian relief workers, and that led us to these helping professions.
Your research was born out of a conviction that work should be meaningful and life-enriching. That’s easy to see with helping professions. How are you convinced that work can be meaningful for everybody?
It’s as much a statement of aspiration, as it is of reality. Part of it starts with understanding that for people who work, work comprises a huge part of their life. They give significant amounts of time but also significant amounts of their own self—their psychological, physical and spiritual energy. There’s enough psychological research to suggest that anything that we give that much of ourselves to is going to have an impact on our well-being and on the rest of our lives.
So our conviction is that everybody should have work that is life-enriching. By studying these professions that many people enter out of a sense of calling and yet some don’t have that sense of flourishing, we can understand what helps them experience flourishing. Our hope is that we can learn things about work in general that can help those kinds of work that we think of as more mundane (trash collecting, road construction, housekeeping) become more life-enriching work.
At this point in your research, do you have a sense of whether there are principles or learnings that could translate into other more mundane professions?
One of the insights is that there are probably certain kinds of work that no one should do, and as societies we should find ways to get rid of those kinds of work. For example, people who have to pick up dead animals on the road. It’s never pleasant work. Maybe as a society we should take care of that ourselves; if an animal is killed in front of my home, I take care of it. But we’re learning that helping people connect their own life values to the work they do is one way to bring more meaning to what otherwise may be more mundane work.
That can be difficult, certainly. Think of someone on an assembly line making car tires. It may be hard to help them understand how some value or belief that’s important to them would connect to the work they’re doing, but it could be possible to do that. A characteristic of people who flourish in their work is that they connect deeply their core life values to the work they are doing.
If mundane work and “dirty jobs” would be one side of the spectrum, how about people on the other end who are helping rich people get even richer? How can work be meaningful in those professions, or are those the type of jobs that shouldn’t exist?
I was in that profession before I went back to get my doctorate. I worked for a large financial services firm, and my job was to help make very wealthy people wealthier. There was certainly no meaning in that work for me at all. There is someone that I know very well who remains in that work and does find fulfillment in it. His sense is that these individuals have as much value as others, and they have a right to be able to manage their money in a way that’s in keeping with their wishes. I respect the way he has made meaning out of the work he’s done, and it’s been good for me to disconnect my own values from the work he does and grant him the right to find value in it.
The kinds of work that I hope societies would find a way to do away with would be the jobs that would be degrading or dehumanizing. But I think we need to allow people the right to pursue work that we couldn’t imagine being fulfilling but they do find fulfilling.
Why do you think that Americans have an impoverished understanding of work?
I think it’s because we tend to invest so much of our identity in our work. We don’t have a very rich theology or philosophy of understanding the complexity of work, so we tend to flatten it in terms of making money and having social status. I also think we feel guilty about the financial resources that our work provides versus what work provides for other people around the world. The guilt that people experience is difficult to deal with, so they tend to just cast it aside.
In some ways we expect too much out of work, but in other ways we expect too little. So we expect work to be not just fulfilling but fun and enjoyable. We don’t expect it to be toilsome or difficult. Or we expect work to be nothing more than a paycheck.
If we could understand work in more complex ways, we could understand what constitutes meaningful work and what constitutes dehumanizing work. We could understand our own work experiences better: why some work experiences are so life-giving and others are life-depleting. We could have a collective understanding of work that allows us to support each other in moving into work which is more fulfilling and contributes more to the welfare of others. And we could work together to get rid of work that is dehumanizing.
What made you decide to become a work researcher?
Before I worked for the financial services company, I worked as a consultant at a big consulting firm. We were hired to help organizations improve productivity, which meant we were hired to come in and fix broken employees. My exposure to people in many different occupations and jobs made me realize how few people found work to be life-enriching, found meaning in their work, or saw work as a way to live out a purpose they thought was important.
Then in the financial services firm, I found myself falling into that trap: trying to find meaning in my work but chasing after it in the wrong way, measuring it by the wrong standards, finding myself making poor choices, diminishing my own well-being and the well-being of my family. So I wanted to understand this thing that occupied so much of our life, to understand a better way of engaging in work.
Tell me more about the project and the data it has produced.
Our project is longitudinal which means we want to study people over many years to understand the unfolding nature of the work experience. Out first question is: What does well-being at work look like? What are its signature characteristics? We draw heavily on the burgeoning area of research called positive psychology to understand the characteristics of well-being within the context of work and if they are different from the characteristics of well-being in other domains of life.
The second question is: what are the factors and conditions that foster high levels of well-being or diminish it? How does well-being unfold in a lifespan? What causes the ebbs and flows of well-being? Does it look different for somebody new in their career or younger in life than it does for somebody older in life?
We’re focusing on a smaller set of professions but our long-term goal is to understand it across all kinds of occupations. So we do lots of survey studies that give us a snapshot of many people’s experiences. We use narrative approaches which allow us to go very deep into a small group of individuals’ lives. This summer we’ll start to use methodologies that allow us to study daily life experiences, so we’ll be able to focus deeply on an individual’s experiences for two or three weeks at work.
You mentioned resonance with core values as one of the factors that enhances well-being. What are other factors that might enhance or inhibit well-being?
One that’s obvious for many people is mastery combined with a sense of purpose or contributing to something that matters: the ability to feel a vocation in one’s work. Giving our best selves to something that we care deeply about is a key feature in fostering high levels of well-being. Somebody that can do a job well but finds no value in it is in the worst situation because they find themselves giving deeply of themselves and wondering, “What value is there in all this hard work that I’m doing?”
Also important is a sense of what makes a particular expression of an occupation unique but also similar to others—what we call a personal identity (one’s own uniqueness) and a social identity (what makes a person like others). With clergy we find that those who are flourishing can say what makes their own expression of ministry unique, but they also want to understand how the work they do in ministry is carrying out this greater cause that makes them similar to other pastors. People within any profession need “a sense of membership,” as Wendell Berry would say in his novels.
How about more mundane concerns that people often consider with work, such as how many hours they’re putting in or what their office looks like?
Those things matter but just at the margins. If your work isn’t fulfilling at all, those things are going to rise to the top because it’s all you can expect from work. If you find no meaning in your work, you’re more likely to be frustrated by your pay or a plain office. Whereas if you find fulfillment in your work, those things seem to fade in terms of their significance.
How much does money factor into people’s sense of well-being at work?
Over the short run, it can matter a lot; over the long run, it matters very little. A raise will make you happier in your work but for a very short period of time. Of course if you don’t make enough money to provide for the well-being of yourself and others, that is a long-term problem.
In many organizations money is the main or only indicator people have of the quality of work they are doing or their value to the organization. So the reason they become so distraught about money is because they have no other way of knowing if they are contributing and making a difference. Money is a proxy for a deeper need that people have: to find fulfillment in their work and feel like they’re making an important contribution.
A paradox that we’ve discovered is that in many helping professions, one of the challenges is understanding what kind of sacrifice is positive for one’s experience of work and what kind of sacrifice is negative. We’re finding across these professions—for people who are religious and those who aren’t—that one important characteristic of work that is considered a calling is a sense of sacrifice. It feels good to give very deeply of themselves, and it’s also a way to know they’re not just in it for personal gain.
But there are experiences of sacrifice that diminish well-being. It’s hard for people to know when they’ve crossed that boundary between the sacrifice that is necessary for their work and negative sacrifice that is diminishing their well-being. So burnout is something that creeps up on people.
We’re finding it tends to happen more in people who have a religious background, who don’t have a good theology of sacrifice. They can appeal to martyrs who’ve given their lives or biblical stories of individuals whose sacrifice caused either the loss of their own life or the loss of the family, and they understand that to be the standard of sacrifice. They don’t have a way of understanding a different kind of sacrifice, so there’s a tendency to give too much.
Next week in Part 2 of the interview, Matt speaks about his involvement with the Collegeville Institute Seminar on Vocation across the Lifespan and its impact on his research of well-being at work.