Life with MS

Finding Purpose & Meaning After Employment Changes

By Brad McDaniels
Purpose and meaning

Psychologists have long maintained that finding meaning and purpose in life are important to psychological health and well-being. Viktor Frankl noted that there is a human need to seek purpose and meaning in our lives. Although Frankl's idea seems simple on the surface, identifying one's purpose can prove challenging. 

What exactly is "purpose?" Richard Leider defined purpose as the alignment of an individual's unique gifts, passions, and values into meaningful activities, and is often one of the key contributors to one's sense of purpose in life, that after leaving the workforce can represent a time for people to pursue their true purpose.  

The role of work

For the most part, work is an integral part of our identity and purpose. People work for a variety of reasons, including the obvious benefits, such as a paycheck, health and retirement benefits and financial security. But work is usually more than the bottom line. It relates to esteem, self-worth, feelings of contributing to society, and being part of a larger organization or company.

The health and pychosocial benefits of working are well established and include such things as social interaction, participation in meaningful activity on a daily basis, development of a work identity, and feelings of having contributed to something bigger than oneself, among others. Most adults spend at least half of their waking hours on work-related activities, making work the single most time-consuming task in their lives - and they spend much of their time working than in any other life role, including that of spouse, parent, or friend. 

So, when a disease like MS affects job performance, it threatens not only the person's economic and social status but personal identity as well. When the decision is made to leave the workforce because of MS, many are left with trying to identify other passions and purposes (e.g., creativity, services to others) to fill the void created by exiting the workforce. 

We know from research that the majority of people with MS, who had been working, leave the workforce prematurely and voluntarily. Yet they often do so without a plan for what to do next. To the extent possible, it is important to spend time planning your life after work before leaving employment. Talk to people (healthcare and mental providers, family, and friends) about your plans, and seek out the resources you need to make decisions about how you will engage yourself in meaningful activities. 

We also know that some of the most frequently reported reasons that people give for leaving employment include MS symptoms - especially limited mobility, fatigue, and cognitive problems. It is important to realize that, after leaving employment, the symptoms and barriers that kept you from working will still be there and may still create challenges to participating in your life the way you would like. It is critical that you continue to seek ways to remain engaged in productive, meaningful activities and maintain your own health and wellness in ways that work for you, but it is also important to realize that it may take some time and some help, to get going in this new stage in your life.  

Purpose after work

Finding meaning and purpose after leaving the workforce is important to the maintenance of psychological and emotional well-being. Finding new ways to contribute in a meaninful way not only helps to maintain important parts of one's identity, but also helps maintain a schedule that requires daily participation. In other words, by remaining active participants in life and finding new ways to make and maintain social connections, the health benefits of working can be maintained by establishing new goals and routines. What most people who stop working miss most about their working lives is not the money, it is the social relationships, the camaraderie, and the feeling of contributing and purpose.  

What will be your role in the community after working? Perhaps working in a different way is an option (e.g., part-time work or work-from-home). There are also ever-increasing opportunities for accessible continuing education, both online and through local colleges, universities, and county extension services. This may also be an opportunity to get yourself involved in your community through volunteering or advocacy work.

This may be a good opportunity for you to take up some new hobbies or revisit past hobbies, or past interests you had prior to employment. There is also an ever-increasing number of social media sites, both general and MS-specific, that may serve as a resource for meeting new people, sharing your experiences, continued learning, and remaining engaged. The important thing is to continue to interact with other people for support and engagement in a way that is meaningful to you. 

Approaching leaving work as an opportunity to challenge yourself in new ways and pursue what you previous hadn't had time for can result in viewing life after working, not as a loss, but as an exciting new phase of life - one that can be centered around your individual interests and abilities. The important thing, from a mental and physical health and well-being perspective, is to maintain or develop new social relationships or keep on moving.