Working all the time – Part 2

Not my writing, but I wanted to share a link to an interesting article in the Financial Times this week on the subject of workaholics. Emma Jacobs’s article challenges some of our ideas around workaholic behaviour, stating that it is not necessarily the ‘stressed-out businessman in a suit’.

She argues that the need to always be busy and not feel comfortable relaxing could be an indicator of ‘workaholic’ tendencies or a sign that excessive working is becoming compulsive. She raises an interesting point about attitudes to work: in some cases people can only feel worthwhile when they’re ‘productive’, and so cannot allow themselves to rest or fully relax outside of work.

The article also mentions that behaviour learnt in childhood can affect our working lives. Some learnt at an early age that they would only get attention from their parents when they did well at school, which drives them to over-achieve and this attitude is then carried forward into the workplace. This reminded me of the book Affluenza in which British psychologist Oliver James discusses this issue. In discussing modern Western education policy and methods, he describes the effects of continual assessment on over-achieving children who then transfer their need to gain approval based on their performance from their parents to their employer:

“Wherever you look in the English-speaking world, a new obsession with exam performance is to be seen. Compared with previous generations, schoolchildren are menaced from ever-younger ages by assessment…The key message is that the purpose of education is not to find out what has intrinsic interest for you, but to work hard at school for long-term financial reward. . . . [This] is a prescription for the absence of flow during work, for low self-esteem and a host of other problems. Ironically, on top of that it is death to the capacity to think imaginatively – the foundation of our economic future if the ‘skills economy’ is as important as politicians are always telling us it is.”

Another important point which the article mentions is that technology and multi-tasking often make it hard to focus. We can be ‘at work’ for more hours in the day, but ultimately get far less done than had we switched off.

Of course, not everyone who works long hours has a problem, and what can be classed as ‘over-work’ is entirely subjective, just as we all have different thresholds where stress becomes harmful to us. But there is a need to examine the compulsive component to excessive working, especially in these times of job insecurity and reducing living standards.

Meaning in Work

Here’s a wonderfully interesting TED talk from Dan Ariely, Behavioural Economist, on ‘What makes us feel good about our work?’. He explains various experiments that reveal a lot about what motivates us to work, and our need to find meaning and a sense of purpose in what we do.

I can relate to examples he gives about when work becomes demotivating; when we cannot find a reason why we are being asked to do certain tasks, or when our efforts seem futile or go unacknowledged.

The good news for managers and business leaders in the evidence he presents is that motivating people requires some very simple tools: things such as recognition and acknowledgement. Most of us just want to know that our work has meaning, and that need shouldn’t be underestimated.