The Healing Power of Work

“Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”                                                    – Theodore Roosevelt Chakras at sunset - 3D render

Work can be many things – a means of financial support, an outlet for ambition, a venue for social connection. But can it serve as a method of healing?

As I typically do, I spend time looking for published research and articles on the topics I cover. The topic of the healing impact of work was no exception. Yet I came up blank, well, pretty much close to blank. Sure, I found references to transitioning back to work after trauma or loss, and tips on how ensure that one does good personal “work” as part of recovery. But my search uncovered a profound lack of profundity on the role work can play in providing purpose and solace after pain. The only real reference of note I found was on the National Cancer Institute’s website under “Social and Work Relationships.” 

I found that odd. It made me wonder if the current view of work assumes it is too stressful, too burdensome for someone still recovering from loss. Or perhaps our modern view of work is tied to the image of the warrior: robust, sound and unshakeable. Unsteady, fragile people make us uncomfortable. What do we do with them? What happens if they can’t jump back in with both feet? Can they be relied on, or, worse yet, what  if they break down?

Now, I will readily admit that moving back to one’s “new normal” too quickly after trauma or loss is unwise. The mind, the body and the soul heal at their own pace and that pace should be respected. A valuable component of healing is a belief in one’s ability to stand once again in her space; to contribute, to be productive, to take part in the rhythm of life. Re-engaging in one’s work, however slow, is vital to healing. And to heal, according to Merriam-Webster, covers a broad and holistic swath: to make sound or whole, to restore to health and to cause an undesirable condition to be overcome.

The truth is our work world is uncomfortable with pain. Just witness the machinations companies go through during mergers or restructurings to move quickly into, through and past the discomfort of layoffs. Collective trauma registers for a brief moment in the corporate conscience. Individual trauma is lucky to register a blip.

Yet work can be the longed-for salve a survivor needs. It is a corner in one’s life where output acts as agency, colleagues serve as supporters and regularity reinstates structure and form. Work can make one re-engage with life in ways that other forms of healing cannot. We should not, as those looking in, pretend our colleague is not hurting. We should instead realize that our participation in the mundane nature of our colleague’s business day is social work of the highest order.

In this spirit, let me suggest three steps to support work’s healing power:

1) If you or a loved one finds genuine solace in work, then work. Don’t prevent such engagement out of the misplaced desire to protect. Healing rarely unfolds in a neat, methodical sequence and determining the right time to return to work is personal.

2) If your colleague has returned to work, honor his or her fragility and protect his or her attempts to find strength. The experience of competence reinforces a sense of confidence – in oneself and in life.

3) Be prepared for transitional bumps. Some days are seamless while others may trigger strong emotions. Let it happen and trust that the essence of the person remains in spite of current discomfort.

“Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” Healing, or helping someone else heal after trauma and loss is work worth doing and work that should, always, be done.

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