THE JOY OF WORK: Wicked work gets the blame for most of our ills - it saps our energy, steals our time and erodes our spirit. Nonsense, says Richard Reeves, it's our community, how we identify ourselves. Our attitude to work needs a radical overhaul

THE JOY OF WORK: Wicked work gets the blame for most of our ills - it saps our energy, steals our time and erodes our spirit. Nonsense, says Richard Reeves, it's our community, how we identify ourselves. Our attitude to work needs a radical overhaul - How

by
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

How was your day? Don't give one of the approved answers: 'OK, I guess' or 'Well, it's just a job, isn't it?'. Be honest. You probably had a great day, engaged in interesting tasks with agreeable people. You like your job more than you dare admit. Maybe you don't have hobbies, because your work is more fascinating than any evening class.

Maybe you like being at work more than being at home. You may feel more valued at work than elsewhere. Perhaps you have made most of your friends through work. Even your love life may revolve around the office. Maybe it doesn't really feel like work at all. Don't worry. You are not alone.

Working hard at a job you love does not make you a social pariah. Work is becoming more central to all our lives. It is a provider of friends, gossip, networks, fun, creativity, purpose, comfort, belonging, identity - and even love. Work is where life is. And where the heart is. It is OK to derive more satisfaction, pleasure and pride from your labour than from your leisure. There is nothing wrong with preferring to complete a work project rather than slump in front of mindless TV soaps. Lots of us do. If you love your job, come out. Declare your affection.

If, on the other hand, you are stuck in a job that is, in American writer Studs Terkel's phrase, 'too small for the human spirit', don't accept it as your fate. Ignore the voices telling you that it's just the way life is and you have to learn to lump it. That is not the way life is. And no-one has to lump it. Would you stay with a partner who made you miserable? No. You expect better. Do the same at work. Demand more, and the chances are you'll get it.

Our attitudes to work need a radical overhaul. The popular myth is that work is wicked - that it saps our energy, steals our time and erodes our spirit. Two of the most depressing mantras of modern times capture the anti-work ethos. The worst is 'I work to live, I don't live to work'. The truth is that people who work to live have no kind of life. Work takes up more waking hours than any other activity. Most of us would work whether we needed the money or not. The idea that we should willingly endure dull or demeaning work for the sake of a few hours off is a crime against humanity. We are now more interested in living life than simply making a living. And a full life means fulfilling work.

Depressing phrase number two is 'Nobody ever says on their deathbed they wish they'd spent more time in the office.' First, there are plenty who would if they were being more honest. Lots of us get more out of our work than other aspects of our lives. It is just not socially acceptable to say so. And there are many more people who would like to say they had found work that was interesting enough for them to want to spend more time in the office. When asked: 'What do you most regret in your life?', four out of five retired people picked the response 'Staying in a job I did not like'. Our old-age regrets are not about the lovers that got away, much as we like to think so. They are about the jobs that got away.

Wicked Work is not a new myth, of course. Work has been bashed for centuries - as divine curse, punishment, wage slavery, as a price to be paid for our leisure. Bertrand Russell declared 70 years ago that 'a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organised diminution of work'.

Today, work is diagnosed as the disease behind some of the worst symptoms of modern life - stress, divorce, heart disease, juvenile delinquency, suicide, sleeplessness, cancer, depression, lack of sex. Even the haven of the toilet has allegedly been invaded, with stress at work linked to irritable bowel syndrome. Pick up any newspaper on any day of the week and there's a good chance of finding a story that links work to one or other of society's ills: 'Working mothers damage children's education', 'Stress at work on the rise', 'Workplace blues', 'The death of career', 'Workaholism - the new killer', 'Overwork drives up divorce rate'. And so on.

The only disease that is genuinely spreading is whingitis - a tendency to moan consistently in the face of the most wonderful developments. We are like an adolescent schoolgirl meeting a naked Robbie Williams in a candlelit boudoir and complaining that the thermostat is a bit high. Some facts: average earnings have increased by more than half in the past decade. The proportion of firms offering maternity leave in excess of the statutory minimum has quintupled. A third of firms now offer sabbaticals; two-thirds allow their staff to work from home some of the time. Four out of 10 British workers declare themselves 'very satisfied' with their jobs - more than in than France, Germany, Italy or Spain. Most of us are satisfied with our working lives. A third of us say that work is the 'most important thing in our lives'. We feel at least as appreciated at work as at home. Work is how we identify ourselves, where we learn and make friends. Work is our community.

It is time to call a halt to the rhetorical carpet-bombing of work. Work is good. And by insisting it is bad we limit the opportunities to make it even better. People in soul-destroying jobs accept them because they are continually told that work is not supposed to be enjoyable. At the same time, the real impact of downsizing is downplayed; companies kid themselves (and sometimes us) that if they fire somebody or push them into early retirement they are liberating them from work. They are 'letting them go'.

We get the politicians we deserve, and so it is with work. If we expect it to be unfulfilling, the chances are it will be. The Greek philosopher Epictetus said: 'It is not things in themselves that trouble us but our opinion of things.' In this case, the problem is not bad work, it is our bad attitude towards work. We need a new and better conversation, one that better reflects the reality. Governments, companies and trade unions remain stuck, by and large, in an anti-work rut. So it is up to us, as individuals, to shape a new, positive consensus. We have to break the impasse. A few have already started ...

David loves his work. He is a young assistant vicar in North London. 'I love being a priest. I love the contact with a wide range of people. I love being able to give people support, often at very difficult times in their lives. I get to share people's stories, and I feel enormously privileged for that. Of course there are days when I wake up and wish I earned a bit more. But I simply cannot imagine doing anything else with my life.'

Marsha loves her work. A former special assistant to Donna Shalala, the US Health and Human Resources Secretary, she says: 'My work is an expression of who I essentially am. The values by which I live my life are the same ones I apply to my work. My jobs have allowed me to do the work that I love. I have never seen work as limiting. I get blown away by it, positively. It's a riot.'

Ramesh loves his work. An assistant accountant for Dixons, the electronics retailer, he says: 'In the past 14 years I have not had a single day off work with illness. There are some people who have a cold or sore throat and can't be bothered to go to work. The English whinge all the time about two things - weather and work.

I understand about the weather; I'm from Sri Lanka. But I have never understood why about work. I love it. I love numbers. I'm very proud of what I produce - and I'm very proud of myself.'

Charlene loves her work. A senior vice-president at Fleishman-Hillard, one of the world's biggest PR agencies, she is young and ambitious. 'If people were to ask me what I do with my time, it would be work. I can't say I have a really strong hobby that uses up my time. I worry about that ... Actually, I don't - I think I ought to worry about it. The truth is that my work has given me the most amazing opportunities. My work is my hobby. My work is my life.'

Sue loves her work. Running the bakery in a Safeway supermarket, she has just been promoted from the checkouts. 'I love my job now, even though it has more responsibility. And I loved the checkouts too. Some people want to be a nuclear physicist or a brain surgeon; I wanted to work in Safeway. On the checkouts you get your regulars. I wear big earrings, and some of them started bringing me pairs in. They stop me on the street and say hello. The other girls ask why I talk to the customers, but I think a job is what you make it. You get out what you put in. I'm proud of my work.'

David, Marsha, Ramesh, Charlene and Sue are honest about their relationship with their work. They are pioneers. As such, they can be subject to fierce attacks. 'There's something really creepy about people who 'love' their work,' says journalist Julie Burchill. 'And really class-traitorous, too.' Which class is Burchill talking about? And how is someone who loves their work a traitor?

Burchill's view, apparently, is that progressive people are obliged to spend their working hours engaged in hateful and demeaning tasks. She perfectly expresses the lazy, reactionary view of work that has condemned so many to suffer so much for so little. There is nothing admirable about sticking at a soulless task, nothing liberating about working to live, nothing cool about hating your job and doing nothing about it.

Nowadays it is pretty much OK to openly love anybody or anything. It is OK for people to say they love their spouse, to say they love their same-sex partner, to say they love their dog. The one thing they cannot say without fear of stigma is that they love their job. Love of work is now the only love that dare not speak its name.

But not only is it OK to love our work, it is necessary for us to have the kind of lives we want. Money is important, but in a post-materialist society we need much more. Research shows that happiness rises with income, but only up to a point. And the vast majority of people in the West are past that point. So the fact that we are getting collectively wealthier does not mean we are getting collectively happier - a source of consternation to many politicians and social commentators. People doing work they enjoy are happy - not only at work but generally in the other areas of their lives too.

If we want happiness, the solution lies not in GDP growth or nuclear families. It lies in meaningful work for us all. Terkel says work is now '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.'

Once we see work in this light, entrenched debates - in particular over working hours, the work/life divide and family breakdown - take on a different flavour. Work stands accused, for example, of sucking all the hours out of our days, for taking over our lives. And it is true that some people are working longer hours. But the idea that it is being forced on us doesn't stack up. Take the people working the longest hours, more than 60 a week.

Official figures show that they are the ones with most control over their time and the ones who say they like their jobs the most. Who'd have thought it? That people who like something might do more of it than people who do not? Shocking! It never seems to occur to the critics of working hours that people might actually, er, like their jobs.

People who put in more hours than is strictly required don't have a problem - they are simply made to feel as if they have one because of the 'work is bad for you' consensus. There is a wonderful cartoon of an artist snarling at his wife late at night: 'I'm not a workaholic! Lawyers and accountants are workaholics. Artists are driven.' The truth, of course, is that lawyers and accountants can be just as driven. And there's nothing wrong with that.

In any case, the line between 'work' and 'life' is rapidly being rubbed out. Few people want to put their work in a box labelled 'nine to five'.

Knowledge work can't be corseted into a standard workday. More people are working from home some of the time. And people are finding that work provides community, friendship, gossip and romance - all of the things that home has traditionally supplied. We are working at home, but also 'homing at work'.

There remains the argument that long hours, even if freely chosen, are wrecking families. Two-thirds of working women say they are too tired for sex, and that their relationships suffer because of a lack of time.

Commenting on these findings, Guardian writer Madeleine Bunting asks: 'How obvious does the connection between Britain's longest working hours and highest divorce rates in Europe have to get before we start doing something about it?' There may be a connection between long working hours and divorce, but there is no evidence that the former causes the latter.

Indeed, it is more likely to be the other way around. People who get divorced take their work more seriously than those in relationships, perhaps because they now have to fend financially for themselves. That may make them inclined to work longer hours. It is simply nonsense to blame work for the break-up of marriages. Relationships end.

When people - especially women - are economically independent their relationships end more often. But work is not to blame; it is simply a handy scapegoat for an emotionally dishonest society.

On all counts charged, work is Not Guilty. It has simply become the scapegoat of choice for the chattering classes. Work is one of the activities that defines our humanity. Through our work we discover who we are and what we might become. Albert Camus believed that 'without work, all life goes rotten'. His words have never been more true than today. It is time to give work a break, to stop carping about it and start celebrating it.

Kahlil Gibran said work was 'love made visible'. Let's have a bit of that spirit back.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Subscribe

Get your essential reading delivered. Subscribe to Management Today