4 Ways to Feel Essential

For some, COVID-19 may be exacerbating feelings of unimportance at work. Four steps to take if you’re not feeling valued.

After three months of having their professional lives upended—and now fears of a pandemic renewed—it may not be surprising that many are beginning to wonder if what they’re doing is really worth it.

Almost 27% of nearly 2,000 respondents in a Wall Street Journal survey agreed with the statement, “I’m not considered essential or don’t think I am, but I’m still working. My work doesn’t feel particularly important or meaningful.” Experts say this ennui is something to monitor and even address, especially if the coronavirus pandemic keeps disrupting the economy. “It’s a high enough number of people for companies to take note of it,” says Mark Royal, an associate client partner for Korn Ferry Digital.

Being motivated at work can be an issue for anyone, of course, no matter what the circumstances. Various surveys estimate that as many as 70% of employees in American workplaces are not highly engaged in their jobs—a disappointing figure considering how much time and money many companies dedicate to engagement. But the pandemic may be spurring a new round of reflection among workers. After all, the brutal fallout has stripped away many of the benefits of the work experience, such as the camaraderie of coworkers, the potential for travel, meeting people of different backgrounds, or even free food. That leaves just the work. And for some, the crisis has also increased in nonessential workloads (to make up for layoffs of their colleagues) lower pay, or both. “That makes many people wonder about their value,” Royal says.

Experts say this rumination may be akin to a midlife crisis, only without an age requirement. Here are some constructive actions:

Figure out what matters to you.

The way people find purpose in their jobs and careers isn’t that different in a pandemic versus a more normal time, says Val Olson, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. People feel they’re doing meaningful work if their job aligns with their core values or their job requires them to use skills they naturally like to use. “Meaningful work allows us to contribute in a natural, effortless way and to receive appreciation from others,” Olson says.

Determine if the job is really the problem.

It’s important for employees—whether they are early in their careers or top executives—to separate whether the sense of dissatisfaction is stemming from something the coronavirus brought upon, such as isolation from coworkers or a new focus at work, or from something that existed before they even heard of COVID-19. “If employees can unpack that, they can come to a balanced assessment with what they are doing now, in the new normal, to return to a level of satisfaction they previously enjoyed,” Royal says. Workers can take it a step further, as well. There are various tests to determine potential career paths or under-the-radar skills that might help workers discover how they can find their purpose.

Talk about it with the boss.

Experts say it’s OK to bring up the “my job is not important” feelings to supervisors. Managers might be able to shift workloads or help fix things that are getting in the way of employees feeling essential, Royal says.

Find other outlets.

It sometimes may be hard to believe, but there are other ways to derive purpose and meaning than just through work. Experts suggest spending more time on a hobby (new or otherwise), volunteering, or reaching out to friends and family. Finding another outlet can be particularly important for people who have been furloughed or let go from their jobs, Olson says. “We are naturally dynamic, active, and purpose-driven. Find something to do that makes a difference in an area you care about.”