17. Concluding remarks: You can rescue work from the grip of death by Bea Boccalandro
It troubles me that our society thinks “work-life balance” exists. We put work and life on opposite ends of a zero-sum dynamic. Like a morbid seesaw, the more work we do, the less life we have. Given that the absence of life is death, our obsession with “work-life balance” reveals that, consciously or not, we consider working is a form of dying.
I don’t know of any studies that measure how happy we are working as compared to dead. However, researchers have measured how happy we are working as compared to the closest thing to death I can think of: being sick in bed. Guess what? We are almost indifferent. Being sick in bed brings us the least amount of joy of all 39 typical daily activities, including such quotidian acts as commuting, housework and watching TV. Work, however, is barely better, ranking 38 out of 39 activities.1 Our experience with work might explain why we think “work-life balance” is the way it is.
Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Studs Terkel interviewed over 130 people about their work and used the term dying to describe working. Terkel’s conversations with spot welders, cab drivers, film producers and other workers, however, also led him to conclude that work is a natural home for our highest aspirations and deepest dreams:
“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”2
Not surprisingly, Terkel’s interview with a policeman, a profession deeply infused with social purpose (when done well), is one of the chapters that fleshes out work as a “sort of life” as opposed to a “Monday through Friday sort of dying.” Despite tolerating department politics, being passed up for recognition, being misunderstood by the public and having a job with considerable unpleasantness, Chicago Officer Vincent Maher, considered he had “one of the most gratifying jobs in the world.” Maher didn't tolerate eight hours of work so that he could rush home to his source of meaning. By allowing him to protect vulnerable individuals from danger, his work provided at least some of the meaning in his life.
Maher didn’t see himself trapped on a work-life seesaw. Neither should we. Rather than trying to neutralize work’s poisonous effects with what we do the remaining half of our waking hours, we can fix work itself. We have the option of applying the “WE GIVE” Drivers of Effective Job Purposing (see post 9) that broaden the social mission of jobs with the opportunity to serve a societal cause. Our employees can go home, not parched for meaning and looking for a remedy for the void, but knowing they matter and feeling fulfilled. If FedEx, Caesars Entertainment and HP have job purposed driving, sales and housekeeping functions, it can be done to any job.
In other words, you can rescue work from the grip of death.
1Bryson, Alex and George MacKerron. “Are You Happy While You Work?” London School of Economics and Political Science. 2013.
2Terkel, Studs. Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, 1997.
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