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June 18, 2013

Finding a Happy Place (at work)

June 18, 2013

(The ideas in this blog are not new. I have happily stolen and adapted these ideas from the work of Max Weber, Karl Marx and conversations with Jeb Banner, among others.)

Organizations and HR professionals spend a lot of time talking about “work-life balance.” It has become en vogue for companies to describe their leave policies and benefits packages as creating good work-life balance for employees. Many of these organizations are certainly taking steps in the right direction, but as a society we have many more steps to take before we see truly meaningful progress in achieving healthy work-lives.

I don’t want to be overly dramatic here. By no means do American workers suffer like 19th Century factory workers, or 7th Century serfs. In the context of history, we have it pretty good, no doubt. Many people have found the once elusive work-life balance that is all the rage.

Here’s the rub. We still have a very unhappy workforce. We know that a happy person is a more productive one. We also know that people who find meaning in their work tend to be happier. 

But what does it look like for someone to be able to find meaning in work?

Work-life balance?

To see what it might look like we must start by ignoring the diagram above.

We have to cast aside the idea that “life” happens at some mythical point at the end of a spectrum, and that it exists in polar opposition to “work.” It is this idea, this base assumption reinforced by the reality of a specialized and fragmented global workforce, that work is something bad; that work is a necessary evil that pays the bills, and that if we are lucky enough, maybe we will have money enough left over to enjoy a bit of life.

The very idea of BALANCE between work and life further reinforces the negative connotations of WORK and legitimizes its separation from LIFE.

Think about some of the happiest, proudest, most productive people you have known. I have some faces in mind. I don’t want to plant any suggestions by giving you my ideas. But just think for a moment about who those happy people ARE, what they DO, and how those two things are so intermingled that to separate them would seem cruel and unusual.

I’ll bet that their work-life diagram looks a bit more like this.

So what do the “happy workers” of the world seem to have in common? Well, there is likely some variation based on personality. Some people just have a great disposition, no matter the circumstances. Let’s not dwell on them (it’ll just frustrate the rest of us!). Barring personality, what other circumstances do many of the happiest workers share?

First, they often feel a sense of connection to the work they do. What the hell does that mean? Well, essentially it means that they can, for whatever reason, see, touch or otherwise experience the results of their labor. Their work has meaning to them and to others. They see, first hand, the products they create and how they change the lives of others. They talk to the customers and partners they serve, and can see the impact that they have.

Second, they can see that what they do or what they make benefits their community or their world in a substantial way. Their products make people happy, improve lives or otherwise impact the world for the better. We’re not talking about the kind of work that is “good” because it has large profit margins, shows a huge ROI or pleases investors. We’re talking about the kind of work that causes people to smile when they interact with it or fulfills a great societal or personal need.

Truly important stuff.

Work that derives its value based on how it impacts people, not just how it impacts individual or global economies.

Lastly, the work that these folks do is often so integrated into the rest of their lives that NOT doing it would diminish them in some way. These wonderful folks are the sorts who define their very lives in many ways based on the good work that they do every day. Their lives might look something like this:

The work that one engages in and the products they produce help to define their lives and create happiness. Their work informs their notion of self, and thus defines their lives in many ways. Furthermore, they live for the work that they do, and the impact that it has. This cycle creates happiness, and reinforces it.

Before you go and say “That’s all well and good, you crazy Marxist,” let’s put this into perspective. Let’s make it real and actionable. (I need a little help here...)

I could say, “go follow your passions and the rest will just work itself out.” But that teeters on being a falsehood (though an innocent one).

No, what really needs to happen is that employers need to provide the sorts of opportunities and jobs that help employees feel the satisfaction described above. Workers need to feel connected to the customers that their companies serve. They need to be able to enjoy the products they are helping to craft. They need to be given the opportunity to experience the results of their labor, in the flesh as often as possible. Most of all, they need to feel like what they, and their employers, are doing is helping.

So, how can we do that? I’d love to hear your ideas, whether theoretical or currently in practice.

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