Work/Life Balance and the Work Ethic

This is the 21st Century. Our ancestors lived through a period where there were the rich, and there were the workers – the rich got to make all the decisions, like whether the workers got to eat, and the workers got to work hard and, if they were lucky, drink themselves silly. We’ve moved on.

In these enlightened times, the stick to beat about the heads of the largely middle-class population is the “work ethic”. It’s a belief in the moral value of “work”, according to my dictionary . It’s a great term, in that it’s meaningless yet seems to make perfect sense. Why wouldn’t working be morally good? My Dad had a similar term – he always said “word hard and play hard”. I know that these sayings are appealing, but there’s a wealth of complexity hidden here – a complex dynamic of economic pressures and personal needs: to belong, to add value, to feel respected. The work ethic is often turned on its head into a peer pressure system that can be stifling and counter-productive.

I like to keep busy, and if someone’s paying me to do a job then I feel morally bound to fulfil my obligations. But working (or playing) “hard” has all the wrong connotations. Why “hard” rather than “smart”, or “successfully”, or even “nice”!? Whatever I’m doing, work or otherwise, it needs to be enjoyable and/or rewarding. You often get greater rewards for greater effort – but there’s a balance in that which, perhaps, we’re losing sight of on our lives. Plus, if you look at successful people in an organisation, it’s clear that “hard work” can take many different directions.

Working “hard” is something we feel we have to do – because of real pressures or, just as often, because of peer pressures. And working “hard” is what most affects our work/life balance.

I don’t want my employer to decide what my “work life balance” should be. I once declined to attend a talk on this at my company, it was neatly placed during the lunch hour – and there wasn’t even a free lunch! It’s easy to fall to the temptation of the “work ethic” – especially in hard times when jobs are won and lost. Be seen to be busy – it protects your income, whether the busy-ness is useful or not! But isn’t it better to actually want to do what you’re doing, and want to do it well? Whether you work “hard” doing it (lots of thinking? many hours of effort?) is irrelevant, it’s the end result that matters. So how can employers find a way to harness that desire of the individual to work their best? First, the employer has to believe it’s possible – that employees aren’t by nature lazy. I don’t believe people are lazy by nature – absolutely the opposite. But it’s a whole other topic.

So my view is this – create an environment where people feel empowered, at least in terms of their own activities. Have a management structure that listens to them, knows what is expected of them and and genuinely values feedback. Then measure people based upon what they achieve. Let’s ignore how much time they spend doing it, where they do it, and whether they raise a physical or mental sweat. Measuring based on achievement can be tricky, but in the end it’s achievement that converts an employee’s time into value for his employer – and it’s achievement that makes an employee feel motivated.

I’ve got away from the key message, and dabbled in ideas that I’ve not been able to do justice to in a short post, so I’ll return to the topic in hand. The abandonment of the work ethic based on people visibly working hard, a shift towards a “social business” where individuals have responsibility for their own actions and interact across their organisation regardless of structure, and employee measurement based upon results.

We have tools – mobile phones, PCs, and the Internet – to allow us to weave together our non-work activities with our work activities. There doesn’t need to be a “9am switch-on, 5.30pm switch-off” mentality – any time could be a work moment. But any time could also be a private moment. Everyone wins – people are happier because they’re more empowered, companies get more because their staff work hardest when they’re most fit to do so. It’s a complex and ever-changing dynamic and it’s counter-intuitive to a world brought up on the earlier ideals. But it can really work.

About mikbarne
I'm a writer and freelance communications and collaboration consultant with nearly 20 years experience in UK telecommunications, specialising in VoIP, Unified Communications and Collaboration, and building effective communications architectures. Visit my Google+ Profile

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