Work Matters

Reflecting on his wife Zelda’s death, following years of bizarre behaviors and her long residences in asylums, author F. Scott Fitzgerald identified part of Zelda’s problem as being simply a lack of work. “Work is dignity,” he said forlornly, equating dignity and work with both physical and mental health and its absence with her unfortunate demise.

Work truly does offer somewhere to go, something healthy to do, problems to solve, other people with whom to interface, more self-identity than just vanity and ego, dignity, and maybe best – giving help to others.

At The WorkPlace Ca, we say: “Work is Life.”1

Having ‘work’ helps structure and maintain a life on a positive track, which is particularly crucial when there is a history of prior dysfunctionality: drug or alcohol abuse, criminal offences, or even debilitating medical issues or episodes. Therapy may be the necessary starting-point of return/reentry to civil society and a bigger life, but ‘clean, sober, and unemployed?’ 2 Is that a good therapeutic/intervention stopping point?

Researching the self-narratives of chronically addicted men, it was found that: “What is missing from the identities of men suffering from chronic addiction is a belief that their lives are embedded in the same world and reality to which the rest of us belong . . . Most (of us) have stories that, despite unhappiness or tragedy, make sense. The chronically addicted . . . continue to feel otherness about the apparent illogic of their stories.” 3

Absent ‘work’, how can they ever make their lives makes sense?

Judges are more likely to assign probation and community service, rather than incarceration, if the person charged with an offence is working. Probation and Parole Officers also want to have their charges working. That makes their own jobs easier and protects the community, slowing/reducing recidivism. The first convicted sex offender we had responsibility getting employed, under Department of Corrections contracts, lived in Long Beach. I went and met his Parole Officer just to ask: “Is this guy dangerous?” “Only to little boys,” the P.O. said, “and only if he’s not working.”

“Trust me,” I snorted back. “He’ll be working. At hard, heavy lifting, so he’ll be exhausted at the end of the day.”

Leaving aside for a moment, however, the drama raised by addictions, offences, and physical/mental health issues, the truth is that ‘work’ is more than just an extension of therapy. Work is a stabilizing anchor to reality and an entry point to life’s satisfaction, for almost all of us.

Carter Elliott couldn’t resist broadening the targeted audience of his book (see footnote 2) — the ‘alcoholic/ addicted’ — to include the people he termed “Vocational Virgins”, by which he meant anyone who hasn’t yet discovered and maintained a successful, long-term track of employment. Think the sons and daughters of the rich and famous, for example. Money was never an issue for them and they (and their parents) often mistake work for money. So maybe they haven’t ever worked, not enough anyhow to discover “. . . the joy of what you were born to do.” 4

But let’s us not mistakenly identify how to ‘discover’ that joy with the hope of finding it. Finding a job is not a band-aid fix for dissatisfactions. A job may offer some hope and possibility, but it also will surely open a door to a whole new set of challenges. Over thirty years plus of placing people with barrier issues into jobs at The WorkPlace Ca, we’ve learned it’s good life habits that make for job success and eventual some deeply ingrained satisfaction, or ‘joy’. In that regard, think building or creating, not ‘finding’.

Good habits can’t be taught, or found, they must be inculcated.

“Hands-on, in real life situations (e.g., real jobs),
we learn from our mistakes and from our successes,
day by day, how to react and behave differently. . .
To inculcate good work (and life) habits, you’ve
got to put people in real jobs, support them, and
when they fail (as many will fail early in the process)
pick them up and put them in a second job, and if
necessary a third or a fourth job, until needful lessons
are learned and better habits replace worse ones.”

That’s our belief and what we do at The WorkPlace Ca, long-term.


By John Janda


1.The WorkPlace Ca is headquartered in Santa Ana, has provided employment/reentry services to barriered clients since 1986, and delivers services all through
Southern California.
2.Carter E. Elliott wrote the book on that subject – Clean, Sober, and Unemployed; Strategies for the Post-Rehabilitation Job-Seeker. TAB Books, Blue Ridge Summit,
PA 1992. In the Preface Mr. Elliott argues that “Once superficial physical recovery has been attained and the mental and emotional problems of alcoholic patients
are addressed, there is a tendency to consider the job done. The clients are released, and they are forced to begin a job search without specialized employment
counseling (and assistance)”. That job search is not easy, particularly in this day of security/background/credit searches and reports.
3.J.A. Singer. Message in a Bottle: Stories of Men and Addiction. Free Press, N.Y.,, 1997, pp. 278-279
4.Now we’re addressing the spiritual side of work, maybe best addressed by Thomas Moore, A Life at Work; The Joy of Discovering What You Were Born to Do,
Broadway Books, N.Y., 2008