REALITY BITES: All this busy-ness and stress is creating more heat than light. It is a sign not of work being too hard but too shallow, too undemanding

REALITY BITES: All this busy-ness and stress is creating more heat than light. It is a sign not of work being too hard but too shallow, too undemanding - How hard is your job, really? (It's OK, I won't tell anyone, especially your boss.) Yes, I'm sure you work terribly hard at your job, but that's not the question. The issue at hand is how much your job stretches you, challenges you, teaches you, how much it helps (or forces) you to grow.

by Richard Reeves, a consultant and business writer
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

How hard is your job, really? (It's OK, I won't tell anyone, especially your boss.) Yes, I'm sure you work terribly hard at your job, but that's not the question. The issue at hand is how much your job stretches you, challenges you, teaches you, how much it helps (or forces) you to grow.

Maybe you are one of the lucky ones. Maybe your job is just right - stimulating without being too far beyond you. But there is growing evidence that more and more people are doing jobs that, in skill terms, are simply beneath them. And as our expectations of what we want from life - including from work - are rising, plenty more are discovering that being able to do a job with their eyes closed is a mixed blessing. Atrophy lies in wait.

Of course, there is a mountain of evidence that managers and professionals, in particular, are working more intensively, for longer hours and suffering from higher levels of work-related stress. One in 10 people are working more than 60 hours a week, and of those almost half blame the size of their workload for their Stakhanovite lifestyles.

The biggest rise in working hours has been among management-level women, who are tacking on extra hours of unpaid overtime at an alarming rate. According to a CIPD survey, even our sex lives are suffering as a result. (In fact this simply proves that people will pin the blame on anything - work, kids, weather - except themselves for a less than Olympic sex life.)

Measures of work intensity do, however, suggest that our noses are more consistently to the grindstone. Professor Francis Green, from the University of Kent, combines survey data from questions on the speed at which people say they have to work and on the number of tight deadlines they face to create an index of work effort, which has been steadily rising for the past decade. Almost half of us think our job 'requires us to work very hard', up from less than a third in 1992.

But all this busy-ness and stress is creating more heat than light. It is a sign not of work being too hard, but too shallow. Human nature is driven by a desire to accomplish things, and so the fewer opportunities for accomplishment a job contains, the more likely we are to fill the void by tearing around in a frenzy in an effort to persuade ourselves and others that our work has a purpose, that it is important. The easier the job in terms of intellectual challenge, the greater the need to 'work hard' in order to feel like you are achieving something.

And of course, the more educated we become, the greater our need for our trained brain to have meaningful tasks to grapple with. One of the unfortunate side-effects of the rise in the proportion of young people entering higher education has been a drop in job satisfaction in the graduate population. In fact, graduates now have lower job satisfaction than non-graduates, according to the Work Foundation.

This is not, as popular prejudice might suggest, because students and graduates are a bunch of whining mopers - in fact, education tends to be positively correlated with life satisfaction. It is because the expansion in the number of graduates has not been matched by an expansion in the number of jobs requiring graduate-level skills.

Peter Dolton, at Newcastle University, and Mary Silles, at St John's College, Oxford, have found that one in five graduates are now in jobs requiring no graduate skills. And a quarter of graduates move down the occupational ladder, from jobs requiring graduate qualifications to those that don't demand a degree, during the course of their career. 'A degree is in danger of becoming a ticket to unhappiness at work,' says John Knell, the Foundation's director of research.

Education minister Margaret Hodge's latest attack on universities for turning out Mickey Mouse degrees of little use in the labour market missed the mark. The trouble is not that graduates are under-qualified for the world of work; it is that they are over-qualified for the jobs on offer. The problem is Mickey Mouse jobs.

But the problem of work that is insufficiently demanding of the intellect is not restricted to the bottom of the labour market. There are university professors, politicians, journalists and even CEOs who will quietly admit that their job is using perhaps a quarter of their brainpower. If you are bright, decisive, thick-skinned and a clear communicator, being the CEO of a FTSE-100 company is not necessarily that difficult. Plenty of senior business people are crying out for the chance to put their brains properly to work, to think hard about important issues. Modern work is failing us not because it is too hard, but because it is too easy. Not because it asks too much of us, but because it asks too little.

The problem, of course, is that it is in nobody's interest to 'fess up. Openly admitting that your job is not actually all that tricky is no way to win friends or to strengthen your hand in your next pay negotiation. So we keep schtum, stay busy and complain loudly about how 'hard' we are working. Nobody says it is easy.

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