Depression and Disconnection from Meaningful Work

One cause of depression turns out to be spending one’s time in work that isn’t meaningful. But what does “not meaningful” mean, and how and why does it contribute to depression?

As I’ve written about previously, there are at least six types of social-environmental causes of depression, helpfully cataloged and discussed by Johann Hari in Lost Connections (read my post about the book here). One of these causes is, as Hari phrases it, a “disconnection from meaningful work.”

This could perhaps mean not having work. After all, if you do not have work, you cannot very well have meaningful work. On the other hand, you might well have meaningful work that is not paid work, or is not done for the sake of livelihood. We should perhaps consider work not only in terms of paid livelihood, but in the broader terms of whatever we do with our time and energy.

Hari, however, is (for good reasons) somewhat more specific. In his chapter concerning disconnection from meaningful work, he focuses on paid work that does not feel meaningful. Obviously there must be some subjective element here, where it comes to what does and does not feel meaningful. However, the “not-meaningful” at issue is not essentially about type of occupation. It therefore also is not, essentially, a matter of how meaningful one subjectively feels one’s type of occupation to be.

What it is essentially about is two things: (1) control; and (2) reward. More specifically, the degree of control, or agency, that you have (more is better), and the relation, or lack of relation, between efforts and rewards.

Control, or Agency

More control is better, but just what is meant by “control” in this case? Possibly an even better word would be “agency” or “personal agency.” Greater control goes with greater freedom to act, to make decisions, knowledge about what is going on, ability to have influence, and greater responsibility. If you imagine a somewhat large organization, typically people higher up in the organization will have more control in relation to their work and in relation to the organization itself.

A clerk, for example, probably won’t have a lot of control over what they do, when they do it, or the organization’s policies; nor will they be responsible for, say, securing a new contract for the organization. But people working in upper management probably will have a good deal of control and agency with respect to those same types of things.

Here’s how this sort of control relates to depression: The more control one has, the less likely depression is. The less control one has, the more likely depression is.

The explanation offered is that when control (agency, freedom, responsibility) is lacking, work becomes deadening. It has little meaning or interest, and becomes, to too great an extent, primarily something one simply has to get through in order to sustain livelihood. In contrast, a position which offers a good deal of control and agency can enliven and energize. It feels like it matters, and it doesn’t feel like you’re just carrying out orders.

Effort and Reward

Efforts and rewards, or rather the relation between these, is also of great importance. And the rewards aren’t only material (financial) rewards. We’re talking also about the “reward” — the gratifying, motivating, meaning-making response — of being noticed, being appreciated; being connected to feeling like you, or what you do, matters, is relevant, means something. If “efforts” are answered with “rewards” of these different sorts, then depression is less likely. But if your rewards are the same, or are lacking, regardless of your efforts, then depression is more likely.


The foundational evidence for all of this, by the way, comes from three large studies, performed by Michael Marmot and others, on members of the British Civil Service. Hari discusses the studies in some detail (he also interviewed Marmot), and it’s very interesting reading. I really highly recommend reading Hari’s chapter on this.

Right Livelihood

Finally, it’s worth noting a clear connection with Right Livelihood. I mentioned in a previous post that one criterion of right livelihood is that one’s means of living “should not cause you distress such that it interferes with your spiritual-philosophical practice and development.” If the lack of control or agency, and lack of appropriate relation between efforts and “rewards,” result (1) in feeling “deadened,” (2) in the sense that what you do means nothing, and (3) are one cause of depression, then clearly it interferes with right livelihood.

Lost Connections website.

Related posts:

Non-Pharmaceutical Anti-Depressants and Environmental Causes of Depression: Johann Hari’s Lost Connections.

Right Livelihood: Is It More Than Not Harming?

Links to my growing series of Lost Connections -related posts: This Series of Posts Concerning Depression’s Social-Environmental Causes, Solutions, and Johann Hari’s “Lost Connections”

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11 thoughts on “Depression and Disconnection from Meaningful Work

  1. These are very good points. Years ago I had to pivot away from being a Graphic artist and turn to become an Executive Assistant. I wasn’t happy with having felt forced into that choice, but I tried to make it better by choosing companies I believed in. I avoided companies that weren’t in alignment with my personal or world views, so that did narrow down the scope, but it did leave many great possibilities. Who we work for matters. The work they do matters. If we can choose a company or organization that we believe in, then it allows us to see we’re part of something important, and the work we do is necessary.

    1. Thank you, Tamara. I agree, being involved in something we see as valuable certainly makes a difference. As an executive assistant, do you also feel you have a good degree of control (or agency), and is there a positive correlation between efforts and “rewards”? How do those compare with when you worked as a graphic artist?

      1. I think in situations like these one has to give a timeframe of being under that control. It’s in your power to decide how long you’d be controlled. You can say .. I’ll put up with this fix for 5 to 10 years to raise some capital to kick off what I am passionate about. At this point they are no longer in control,you are!

  2. Thank you for this. I have been trying to germinate a post about what is happening within the corporation I am currently employed with (though I have also seen these things happening with many of my friends and family members). It is a risk-aversion mind set that correlates highly with the desire for automation. My job has been slowly and consistently looking for every aspect of our work that can be tracked, documented and reduced to a yes/no statement. The immediate gains the corporation saw in implementing SOME kind of controls were so successful that they continue to nail down any loose board that pops up. Naturally, now anything less than perfect and seamless looks like a loose board. What this does is exactly what you point out and Hari describes: removes agency from the workers. It used to be that risk was avoided by training the team members and providing them with the knowledge and skills to make good choices when new situations arose. Now, the methodology is to give such strong and clear guardrails for any and all potential situations, that no thinking is required at all (and therefore no risk of people doing unexpected things). I am going to develop this further based on what you put on my radar because I see it as a fundamental threat to happiness for many, as well as a very poor way of doing business in the long run. How have we come to be in a space where agency is seen as something to be mitigated as much as possible? The preference is automation, turning the human into a literal cog that cannot deviate. Another way to describe this is dehumanizing. No wonder lack of control makes us feel depressed, it is because it makes us feel less than human.

    1. I can relate to a lot of what you describe Andy. I left my old job for similar reasons.

      1. Do you have any thoughts about how to reverse this sort of thing, Todd? Like Andy seems to suggest, I wonder if this may be one of the major issues of our time.

      2. We’ll- I may be way off on this, but from my career as a teacher ( the job I left) I wonder if it has to do with how we raise our kids. When I compare my childhood to my kids childhood, and then compare that to what I was seeing more recently at school, it seems like each successive generation of kids grows up having experienced less free/unstructured/imaginative play time as the generation before. So many kids go through life bouncing from one structured activity to the next (school to sports practice to club meeting- repeat) without learning how to deal with the opportunities (and problems) that unstructured, imaginative play time presents. When those kids grow into adult bosses & business owners, they may see an over abundance of rules and a micromanaging style to be positive things, helping to keep employees out of situations that require judgement calls/free thinking or interpretation. Maybe because the boss/owner was raised in a way that over values structure, maybe they bring that attitude with them as bosses/owners. Those of us that value freedom of thought, agency, and the ability to work creatively would find this over-structured approach a horrible work situation, as I did.

        As I said, I could be way off with this but I do agree that it is one of the epic problems of our time.

      3. Interesting. It does seems like there is less and less “free play” for children. And adults too, I suppose. I recall reading about this very thing within the past couple years. I think perhaps it was in another book by Johann Hari called Stolen Focus.

        I’ve also been told that within business, there’s been a “cult of efficiency” for some decades now (maybe since the 80s?). And that it creates a lot of problems, even merely from a business perspective, and from other perspectives as well.

    2. Thank you, Andy, I really appreciate your response. It’s interesting to hear about this from the perspective of someone involved in shaping what others’ jobs will be like, although it sounds like you yourself don’t have much choice about how you’re being compelled to shape those positions.

      I’ve seen similar things in some retail workspaces, where a company has decided to use technology to de-skill its workers, making the position easy but the workers more expendable and replaceable. Yet the expense and effort of investing in the technology could, it seems, instead be used to invest in the workers. I’ve seen other retail companies (although fewer) that take the opposite approach, investing in their workforce and seeking to retain, rather than replace, their workers.

      I really think this needs to be discussed from the perspective and position of designing jobs (the jobs of others), not simply from an individual “job-seeker” perspective. Thank you again for bringing some of this perspective into the post.

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