Rethinking Work

(Reprinted as “Rethinking Work: Wasting Half of our Lives is Terrible,” in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, September 3, 2015)

Swarthmore College Professor Barry Schwartz published an op-ed in last Sunday’s New York Times entitled, “Rethinking Work.” The essay begins by noting that a “survey last year found that almost 90 percent of workers were either “not engaged” with or “actively disengaged” from their jobs.” So 9 out of 10 “workers spend half their waking lives doing things they don’t really want to do in places they don’t particularly want to be.” But Why?

Perhaps human are lazy and just dislike work as Adam Smith maintained. This idea has been so influential that today most the structure of the workplace assumes we don’t really want to do our work. Thus workers are monitored to ensure they are actually working, and that they are as efficient and productive as possible. But Schwartz objects that this approach “is making us dissatisfied with our jobs — and it is also making us worse at them. For our sakes, and for the sakes of those who employ us, things need to change.” (Now doubt this attitude has also been informed by the Protestant work ethic.)

Schwartz believes that Smith was wrong. First of all, people want more from their work than money; they want challenging, engaging and, most importantly, meaningful work that makes a difference to others and makes us feel better about ourselves. In fact many people willingly accept less money for such work. Studies show that even workers in low-paying jobs do work without compensation in order to find  more meaning on the job.

About 15 years ago, the Yale organizational behavior professor Amy Wrzesniewski and colleagues studied custodians in a major academic hospital. Though the custodians’ official job duties never even mentioned other human beings, many of them viewed their work as including doing whatever they could to comfort patients and their families and to assist the professional staff members with patient care. They would joke with patients, calm them down so that nurses could insert IVs, even dance for them. They would help family members of patients find their way around the hospital.

The custodians received no financial compensation for this “extra” work. But this aspect of the job, they said, was what got them out of bed every morning. “I enjoy entertaining the patients,” said one. “That’s what I enjoy the most.”

Schwartz also cites studies that show how people work harder if they think their work is meaningful. (To be fair, Schwartz doesn’t mention that many work harder for more money too.) So there is a cost to what Karl Marx called alienated labor. “Too often, instead of being able to take pride in what they do, and derive satisfaction from doing it well, workers have little to show for their efforts aside from their pay.”

But is there an increase in efficiency that makes monotonous, unfulfilling worth the loss of satisfaction we might from our work, as Smith thought? Schwartz notes that the evidence doesn’t support this claim. For example, Stanford’s Jeffrey Pfeffer’s has “found that workplaces that offered employees work that was challenging, engaging and meaningful, and over which they had some discretion, were more profitable than workplaces that treated employees as cogs in a production machine.” (For more see Pfeffer’s book, The Human Equation: Building Profits by Putting People First. Similar results were also found by Harvard Business School professor Michael Beer in his book, High Commitment High Performance: How to Build A Resilient Organization for Sustained Advantage.)

So when employees like their work, they are happier, and they work better which is better for the company too. But as this is self-evident, Schwartz wonders why we embrace Smith’s view of work. Schwartz answers that Smith’s view creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. The world of work is often so gloomy that people do hate it. Even highly skilled professionals like physicians, lawyers or professors may want to do good work, but find that only satisfying the bottom line matters to their employers. They are actively discouraged from spending time with patients, clients, or students. After a while, they start to work only for the money. But this is contrary to our nature.

Studies show that people are less likely to help load a couch into a van when you offer a small payment than when you don’t, because the offer of pay makes their task a commercial transaction rather than a favor to another human being. And people are less likely to agree to have a nuclear waste site in their community when you offer to pay them, because the offer of compensation undermines their sense of civic duty.

If people were always paid to load couches into vans, the notion of a favor would soon vanish. Money does not tap into the essence of human motivation so much as transform it. When money is made the measure of all things, it becomes the measure of all things.

Of course people do deserve adequate compensation for their work, so things like raising the minimum wage represent social progress. But we should still try to make work satisfying. We can do this by giving people more autonomy and the chance to learn on the job. Most importantly, we need to make work meaningful so that people feel good about doing it. As Schwartz puts it, “Work that is adequately compensated is an important social good. But so is work that is worth doing. Half of our waking lives is a terrible thing to waste.”

Addendum – One can’t read this article without thinking about Karl Marx’s famous work “Alienated Labor.” And one can’t respond adequately to this without at least considering Marx’s insights. That’s what I’ll do in tomorrow’s post.

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