According to consultant Tony Schwartz, far too many people no longer enjoy their work. Worse yet, they hate their work. They go through the motions, feeling more like drudges than like productive, constructive members of a company.
In his words:
The way we’re working isn’t working. Even if you’re lucky enough to have a job, you’re probably not very excited to get to the office in the morning, you don’t feel much appreciated while you’re there, you find it difficult to get your most important work accomplished, amid all the distractions, and you don’t believe that what you’re doing makes much of a difference anyway. By the time you get home, you’re pretty much running on empty, and yet still answering emails until you fall asleep.
Schwartz believes that people hate their work because there are too many demands on their time and because they are afflicted by digital technology:
Demand for our time is increasingly exceeding our capacity — draining us of the energy we need to bring our skill and talent fully to life. Increased competitiveness and a leaner, post-recession work force add to the pressures. The rise of digital technology is perhaps the biggest influence, exposing us to an unprecedented flood of information and requests that we feel compelled to read and respond to at all hours of the day and night.
As a coach, Schwartz’s job is to help companies better manage their employees. Thus, he analyzes the problem in terms that admit to a managerial solution:
Employees are vastly more satisfied and productive, it turns out, when four of their core needs are met: physical, through opportunities to regularly renew and recharge at work; emotional, by feeling valued and appreciated for their contributions; mental, when they have the opportunity to focus in an absorbed way on their most important tasks and define when and where they get their work done; and spiritual, by doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose at work.
He finds that employees who take occasional breaks do better overall than employees who never take breaks. He believes, as ought to be clear to everyone, that employees who are valued and appreciated, who can define their work process, who can focus on what they do best and who can feel like they are part of a greater organization feel better about their work.
No one can possibly disagree.
The strange part is that this workplace malaise seems to be of recent coinage. Schwartz explains:
… systematically investing in employees, beyond paying them a salary, didn’t seem necessary until recently. So long as employees were able to meet work demands, employers were under no pressure to address their more complex needs. Increasingly, however, employers are recognizing that the relentless stress of increased demand — caused in large part by digital technology — simply must be addressed.
Clearly, Schwartz has some excellent proposals for managing this problem. I have not outlined them in detail, but those who are interested would do well to read his full column.
And yet, saying that it has all come about because of digital technology, the fact that you bring your work with you everywhere, feels slightly oversimplified.
Note well his description Albemarle CEO Luke Kissam’s experience:
A little over a year ago, Luke Kissam, the chief executive of Albemarle, a multibillion-dollar chemical company, sought out one of us, Tony, as a coach to help him deal with the sense that his life was increasingly overwhelming. “I just felt that no matter what I was doing, I was always getting pulled somewhere else,” he explained. “It seemed like I was always cheating someone — my company, my family, myself. I couldn’t truly focus on anything.”
Kissam does not say that he feels burdened by digital technology. He says that the problem lies in the way his life is constructed: he is being called on to be all things to all people, to be everywhere and to do everything.
If many employees bring their work home, it is fair to ask how many of them bring their home life into the office?
In the old days, adult life was subjected to a division of labor. One spouse worked while the other managed the home. The working spouse could focus fully on his job because he knew that home and family were being cared for by the non-working or less-working spouse.
Many families today might find this to be desirable, but fewer and fewer families can afford to do so.
And since our culture now refuses to define roles and responsibilities, who does what in the family seems always to be subject to discussion and debate, if not argument. The more discussion, debate and argument the more stress.
Besides, the stable two-parent home seems to be becoming the exception rather than the rule.
Over the past four decades the divorce rate has risen and has stayed unacceptably high. You cannot have a division of household labor in a one-parent home.
Another question comes to mind: how much of the stress of work today comes from what we will call, for lack of a better word, multi-culturalism? In a company where a single culture prevails and where everyone has equal access to it, work will likely be more harmonious than in a company where different people use different cultural cues.
I do not know enough about a sufficient number of different work environments to tell you how important or prevalent this is. But surely, a workplace that insists on respecting diversity in the name of social justice is not the same as a workplace that offers equal access to a single corporate culture.
The first will most likely produce a level of stressful disharmony while the second, where everyone is playing the same game by the same rules, will not.
It’s true that people have more difficulty focusing, but the problem seems to be larger than the issue of technological advances.